A Privileged Man: A Review of the Safdie Brothers’ ‘Good Time’

Abacus-16

Good Time is such a propulsive, lean, and tense movie it’s easy to imagine some dismissing it as an example of style over substance filmmaking. The plot unfolds over night, and Robert Pattinson stars a lowlife who makes a series of questionable decisions while trying to help his mentally challenged brother. The movie is a thrill ride. Hand-held cameras keep us close to the characters’ faces, rapid fire editing keeps the plot moving forward, and through upbeat electronic music, the soundtrack does the same. But pay attention to the details, and you’ll find this is a much more thoughtful movie than it initially appears. Pattinson’s character isn’t just a guy who’s trying to get out of trouble. He is imbued with a kind of white male privilege that motivates even a lower class hoodlum from Queens to stomp over and ruin the lives of whoever crosses his path in order to get what he wants. It’s this undercurrent of thematic heft, the thoughtful observation of who this character is, and the attention to detail that elevate the shiny surface and make this one of the best movies of the year.

Not that the shiny surface needed much elevation per se. It’s a testament to the filmmaking talent of directors Josh and Benny Safdie that a thematically hollow but similarly propulsive version of this movie could still be considered a triumph. But then again, the Safdies are not that kind of filmmakers. They seem to be committed to making every moment of run time count. The movie is incredibly lean and heavily detailed at the same time. Part of how this is achieved is by getting rid of any aspect of the story that could be expendable, and focusing on the immediacy of the main character’s journey. In an interview at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the brothers (and co-writer Ronald Bronstein) revealed that they had crafted a very extensive backstory, sketching what had happened to the characters from the time they were children up to moment before the movie begins. None of that backstory is in the movie.

This is a good thing. Once you hear the filmmakers give background on the relationship between Connie Nikas (Pattinson’s character) and his brother Nick (played by director Benny Safdie), you understand certain details of how exactly Connie comes to the point where he is willing to do all the desperate things he does throughout the movie. But we don’t need it. Knowing that backstory supplies superficial information, what we see on screen is a visceral and truthful relationship. A scene in which Connie sits down and opens up about why he’s doing what he’s doing would be beside the point. We don’t need to hear about his commitment and desperation, we see it all on screen. In the way the Safdies stick to his merciless point of view, and in Pattinson, who delivers a career-best performance in the role.

It is only appropriate, then, to describe Good Time as a well observed movie. We tend to refer to slow character studies and mood pieces as “well observed”, one of the achievements of this movie is how it opens up glimpses into its characters and their world while keeping the plot moving forward at full speed. This is a movie that knows what it’s talking about. The Safdies are native New Yorkers, and nobody would be fooled in believing otherwise after watching this movie. This is the kind of New York movie we get very seldom. It is not set in Manhattan high-rises or Brooklyn brownstones. This story sticks close to the ground, running through the streets of the outer boroughs (mostly Queens). It’s trafficking in the kind of realism you can’t just stumble upon. It’s such a New York movie, a Cellino and Barnes commercial makes an appearance.

This extends to the characters. A lot of them just come in and out of the movie, but the Safdies make sure we know these people have real lives outside the plot. This isn’t achieved through exposition, but through action. How a character says a line, how they move, even details about where they live speak volumes. And at the center of the movie, of course, exists the one character who pierces right through all these characters’ lives. Connie’s increasingly poor decisions start with a bank robbery. To pull this robbery off, he puts on a rubber mask that makes him look like a distorted black man. A telling disguise that reveals volumes about how the character relates to his own identity.

Connie Nikas is an able-bodied straight white man. This means that despite belonging at the bottom of the economic barrel and looking like a sleazebag, he can still access a certain amount of privilege that has trickled down from the top just because of who he is. Most of the characters he encounters can’t access this privilege. Some of them are black, some of them are old, some are women. His brother, as said before, is mentally challenged. The most honest thing about the movie’s treatment of Connie’s situation, however, is that Connie is entirely willing to use whatever ounce of privilege he has left in order to get what he wants. Even if it means destroying other people’s lives.

It is unclear how aware Connie is of the privilege that allows him to repeatedly avoid his own downfall. There is no denying, however, that his actions are often horrifyingly selfish. At one point he impersonates a security guard, and despite presenting himself as the only witness of a particularly fishy situation, he gets away with it. The cops take his word as face value. Do they believe him because he’s white? There is a slight level of ambiguity, but it’s telling that the only characters who are detained during that scene are black. In more than one occasion he hustles his way into black people’s homes, eating their food, drinking their alcohol, and making use of whatever item he needs in the moment. It’s a particularly masculine kind of privilege. He doesn’t seem to have any empathy or respect for the people around him. He’s come to believe he can get whatever he wants, he just needs to find a way to get it.

It wouldn’t be difficult to make a meta-filmic read of the film in which Connie fancies himself the protagonist of his own movie. His initial plan to rob a bank is, after all, the kind of solution that is far more prevalent in movies than in real life. He also has his brother as a moral justification. He’s not doing this all for himself. Just like Pacino robbed the bank for his lover in Dog Day Afternoon, so he seems to be doing it all for his brothers. Connie’s idea of what is good for his brother is obviously warped. He might be smart enough to selfishly get out of trouble, but he isn’t thoughtful. He is the kind of character that in the past has been portrayed in either too sympathetic or too villainous fashion. Rarely does the portrayal fall in such a perfectly amoral place.

Whether Connie finds redemption, or whether he deserves it, is one of the questions that linger after the movie is over. After all, a working class bum such as him can only push his luck so far. The movie ends on a weirdly tender note, that shows a kind of sentimentality that was absent for most of the movie. It seemed out of place initially, but on further reflection, opens up a series of questions about these brothers, their actions, and their humanity. It’s hard to discuss without spoiling the movie, but it’s telling that we never get to see Connie’s ultimate sacrifice, leaving his actions ambiguous. It’s also telling to think of where we last see his brother, what he’s doing, and who surrounds him. That conversation might have to wait for a later time. For now, I don’t have much else to say, other than that Good Time is one hell of a movie.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s