Cannes 2017: Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time

On Film / The Daily — May 25, 2017

“The botched bank robbery is a well-worn genre staple, but has ever a heist gone quite so wrong to quite such electric, propulsive effect as in Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time?” asks Jessica Kiang at the Playlist. “Bouncing wildly off the screen like Crank with an arthouse pulse and the soulful eyes of a particularly loyal puppy, it’s a feat of sonic, visual and narrative engineering that confirms the Safdies’ arrival, after Heaven Knows What, as the beat filmmakers of the millennial generation. And in Robert Pattinson‘s central performance, these Kerouacs of current-day Queens find their Neal Cassady.”

Good Time is not the first term you’d use to describe Daddy Longlegs or Heaven Knows What, two sensitive but skin-prickling studies in human breakage,” writes Guy Lodge for Variety, “nor does it entirely apply to this nerve-raddling heist-within-a-heist thriller, which merges the Safdies’ signature gutter realism with tight genre mechanics to discomfiting but exhilarating effect.” And it features a “career-peak performance from Robert Pattinson, as a scuzzy Queens bank robber on a grimly spiraling mission to break his mentally handicapped brother out of jail.”

More on Pattinson from Little White LiesDavid Jenkins: “In some of the credo-salvaging films in which he appeared directly after his stint as everyone’s favorite braying goth vampire, it sometimes felt that he was a little out of his depth. He wanted so badly to show his range that all you could see was the acting. But the tipping point arrived in James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, in which he insouciantly stole the film from underneath bulky lead Charlie Hunnam with a breathtaking and unshowy supporting turn. Good Time marks the full transition, as if his acting dirty laundry is now completely ice white once more and he can make great movies without the burden of his formative CV.”

“We start not with him,” notes the Telegraph’s Tim Robey, “but on an uncomfortably intense close-up of his brother Nick (Benny Safdie), a brute of a guy with learning difficulties, in mid-therapy session. Connie bursts in and takes him straight off to rob a bank. They do this in rubbery black-face masks while the throbbing industrial score rises in a nearly unbearable crescendo. The sequence is grueling, but it’s funny, too: the notes being passed back and forth between Connie and the unimpressed bank-teller puncture the tension. Imagine a Michael Mann heist with Tarantino blockheads mistakenly given the duffel bag, or think back to sweating, desperate Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, and you get the idea.”

“Once the Brooklyn bank job goes south the film stays on the move, running, punching, tumbling, stumbling over 24 hours as the fallout drags us through streets, vehicles, homes, jail, a hospital, a theme park and more,” writes Time Out’s Dave Calhoun. “Racing through the gutter of the city, it's all shot in a scuzzy, real-world style, although the photography by Sean Price Williams also runs with a theme of neon and scarlet—and bathing some scenes in brothel-red isn’t the only thing here that nods to early Martin Scorsese (check out Robert Pattinson walking down the street hunched like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver for one). It also boasts a terrific, throbbing electronic score by Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never.”

“Because Good Time reveals little of Connie’s backstory, Pattinson must suggest a lifetime’s worth of anxiety and scrappiness in just a look or an action,” writes Screen’s Tim Grierson. “The actor rises to the challenge, effortlessly conveying Connie’s drowned-rat edginess. Because he’s smart and resourceful, this grubby thief emerges as an unlikely rooting interest, and much of the pleasure of Good Time comes from watching the character adroitly navigate through different perils—whether it’s an innocent 16-year-old (Taliah Webster) who gets in his way or a recent parolee (Buddy Duress) with a connection to some ill-gotten money.”

For the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, this is “a sometimes funny, sometimes bewildering odyssey of crime-chaos and crime-incompetence, co-written by Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein; they borrow some tropes and images from Elmore Leonard. It’s a New York story with a bizarrely picaresque feel.”

“The authority demonstrated here in the use of locations, lighting, sound, an anxiety-inducing shooting style and agitated editing—not to mention acting that is as invigoratingly in-the-moment as the breathless storytelling—more than justifies the elevation of co-directors Josh and Benny Safdie to the main competition in Cannes,” argues David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “The movie continues a trend of superior genre entries landing a slot in the premier global film showcase, though unlike, say, Drive, to name an entertaining recent example, Good Time never sacrifices its raw urgency to slickness.”

“The Safdies may be working on a slightly bigger scale this time around, but the movie also shows the limitations of their range,” finds IndieWire’s Eric Kohn. “However, there’s simply no other modern American filmmaker capable of generating comedy and deep-seated suspense at the same time.”

“It’s respectable, but it doesn’t grip,” finds Richard Lawson, dispatching back to Vanity Fair.

“The story in the last act splutters to a weirdly abrupt end with an arbitrariness that suggest that the money ran out on the meter,” grants John Bleasdale at CineVue, but “Good Time runs like a barfly narrative of bad luck catching up.”

Updates, 5/26: “The fun of the movie isn’t just in how it revives a more gritty species of NYC crime movie, from back before the Giuliani clean-up,” writes the A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd. “It’s also in the unpredictability of the narrative—the way it keeps zigging when you expect it to zag. (The big hospital break-out has a perfect, delayed punch-line I somehow didn’t see coming.) And Pattinson is enthralling in the part; he lets us see not just the caged-animal attitude of the character, who’s in survival mode for the entire running time, but also the improvisational spark of his intellect.”

“Pattinson's Connie exudes a simultaneous intelligence and cunning and a hopeless inability to comprehend his own limitations,” writes Sam C. Mac at the House Next Door. “The actor avoids empty posturing and homes in on his character's sense of practicality—because the paranoiac Connie never stops thinking about and carefully calculating his next move. There are other memorable characters in Good Time, in particular the perpetual fuck-up drug dealer Ray (Buddy Duress), who Connie breaks out of Elmhurst accidentally, but the film is at its strongest when it keys its intoxicating aesthetic to Pattinson's performance.”

Sean Price Williams “captures the nightmarish eeriness of what the Safdies call ‘the tragic borough,’” writes Sam Fragoso for TheWrap. “With the help of locations manager Samson Jacobson (a native who scouted locations for Inside Llewyn Davis), Queens is presented as the true underbelly of New York, replete with underdogs, oddballs, hustlers and blue-collar denizens. These unique characters are the result of tireless work from casting director Jennifer Venditti (who aided Andrea Arnold in finding her cast for American Honey). It’s the specifics that matter here. These ancillary parts of the production add texture to the Safdies’ homegrown vision. It bursts at seams with authenticity because it is, in fact, authentic.”

“Jennifer Jason Leigh and Barkhad Abdi pop up in brief roles, but it’s Taliah Webster as Connie’s teen-girl ally who stands out with her seen-it-all unflappability,” writes Emily Yoshida at Vulture. “And Benny Safdie’s performance as Nick is a tightrope walked successfully, dodging every cringe-y pitfall of actors portraying the disabled and bringing down an emotional hammer that bookends the film.”

“The film invokes 1970s and 1980s New York films by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet,” writes Miriam Bale for W. “It's as beautiful, funny, and heartfelt as their films, and also as macho. It’s a complete throwback and update to that era of classic New American cinema and it lives up to or maybe even surpasses its role models.”

The Safdies “have their finger on the pulse, but can’t transform that into a coherent idea just yet,” finds Marc van de Klashorst at the International Cinephile Society.

“If the directors dream to move on to mainstream thrillers and TV cop shows, this is their calling card,” suggests Barbara Scharres at RogerEbert.com.

“Best of all, a fantastically ambient score from 0PN ft. Iggy Pop recalls the glorious heyday of Tangerine Dream,” adds Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema.

Update, 5/27: “To their credit, the Safdies never smear their social consciousness in our faces,” writes Blake Williams for Filmmaker, “and that allows us to garner a casual yet no less effective understanding of where class and privilege presently stand in this country. And indeed, Good Time seems readymade to eventually acquire the same kind of young, white male following that latched onto Nicolas Winding Refn post-Drive (2011)—a stroke that I hope proves to be as productive as it will be grating.”

“Just as Arielle Holmes anchored Heaven Knows What, here, Pattinson—who continues to curate a varied and interesting filmography—achieves something similar,” writes Lawrence Garcia in the Notebook. “There's an intelligence to his performance that draws us into Connie's frazzled psychology, his resourceful process. . . . At every moment, there's a clearly delineated goal, with details and nuances teased out by textured, colorful shades of character.”

Updates, 5/28: “Pattinson is playing for keeps, throwing himself into the Safdies’ shabby, stylized spin on street-level realism,” writes Michael Leader for Sight & Sound. “Comparisons have been made with Robert De Niro’s star-making role in Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese sits atop the ‘Gratitude’ list in the credits), but where Johnny Boy was an unpredictable firecracker, Pattinson imbues Connie with an enigmatic, desperate, directionless energy. Every conversation is a hustle, every passerby a potential mark, and as the night drags on, one starts to wonder for whom, or for what, Connie is really fighting. His careless, callous behavior soon starts to resemble a subtle yet blunt comment on white privilege.”

“It is a remarkably vivid and fresh piece of filmmaking, one that builds on the directors’ previous outings without being overly familiar,” writes Rory O’Connor at the Film Stage. “What is familiar, perhaps, is the frankly unbelievable ability the Safdies have of evoking empathy for a desperately selfish lead character.”

Update, 5/29: The New York TimesManohla Dargis meets Pattinson to talk with him about his past and future projects. And for the one at hand: “It doesn’t peddle a message or redemption, but instead tethers you to an oblivious narcissist who pushes the story into an ever-deepening downward spiral. As errors turn into catastrophes, Connie grows increasingly feral, becoming a character who is a biliously funny reproach to the American triumphalism that suffuses superhero flicks and indies alike and insists that success isn’t just inevitable but also a birthright.”

Update, 5/30: Sean Price Williams’s work is “wholly of a piece with the raw, street-level poetry he’s brought to other notable NYC indies, like the Safdies’s previous Heaven Knows What as well as pictures like Listen Up, Philip, and Christmas Again,” writes Filmmaker editor Scott Macaulay. He’s spoken with the Safdies about Williams’s work for a piece that will appear in the next print issue. After an excerpt, he points to a profile of Williams for Kodak.

Update, 5/31: Good Time is one of the films Jordan Cronk, Nicolas Rapold, Jonathan Romney, and Amy Taubin discuss on the latest Film Comment Podcast (45’50”).

Updates, 7/4: In the latest issue of Cinema Scope, editor Mark Peranson argues that “it was left to the Safdies to save Cannes—which, indeed, they did.” And Dan Sullivan talks with Josh and Benny Safdie. Benny calls Good Time “a genre movie with real emotions.” Josh: “This is a character study, but it happens to be filled with tons of action.”

Pattinson is on the cover of the new issue of Film Comment and online we find a brief excerpt from Nicolas Rapold’s interview. Plus, Amy Taubin: “A crazed Pattinson, freed from the last vestiges of his pretty-boy past, pulls out the stops (he should have won Best Actor), and the supporting cast led by Benny Safdie as the troubled younger brother is memorable. But the film could not exist without Sean Price Williams’s ingenious, wildly expressionist cinematography.”

Updates, 8/17: The Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang talks with Robert Pattinson about his cinephilia, which took root when he was a teen.

Reviewing Good Time for Artforum, Amy Taubin finds that “Pattinson seems to have checked his superego before each shot and let his id wreak havoc. Pattinson’s Connie is on a bad trip, and so is the movie—except that it’s so kinetic and exciting to look at and listen to that you just go with it without worrying that you’ll be wrecked in the morning.”

For Interview, Julia Yepes talks with cinematographer Sean Price Williams.

On the WTF Podcast (71’12”), Marc Maron talks with Jennifer Jason Leigh.

In the New York Times, A. O. Scott wonders “what degree of self-consciousness or critical distance Good Time brings to its depiction of bottom-of-the-barrel white privilege. You could infer a satirical dimension if you wanted to, or even a righteous indictment of what a lowlife can get away with if he has Mr. Pattinson’s complexion. Or you could look at the film’s riot of racial signifiers—the musical and pop-cultural references as well as the demographics of the setting—as a form of trolling, a coy, self-disavowing provocation.”

From the New Yorker’s Richard Brody: “Just as the stylization of Hawks’s Scarface is an emblem of the Depression, just as the stylization of Bonnie and Clyde is an emblem of the Vietnam War era, so the stylization of Good Time is, and will remain, an exemplary and brilliant artistic distillation of the age of Trump.”

For more recent reviews, see the entry at Critics Round Up.

Update, 8/18: Michael Smith argues that “the Safdies are subtly but unambiguously critiquing Connie Nikas for the way he plays the race card throughout the film.” One scene in particular “is about as damning an indictment of racial profiling as one could ask for.” As for form, “when Connie’s luck has finally run out, we see him in an extreme overhead shot attempting to run from the police but looking as helpless and trapped as a rat in a maze. It’s a marriage of form and content worthy of comparison to Fritz Lang or Alfred Hitchcock, a moment of pure cinema to renew one’s faith in the medium.”

Update, 8/19: “It’s mean, all right—also myopic, pitiless, and deliberately ugly, and it leaves you with no moral,” writes Stuart Klawans in the Nation. “I like it a lot. . . . The Safdies are smart filmmakers . . . but, for the most part, they hide their art. They make no bravura gestures, and, except for one or two panoramic establishing shots, they also reject the picturesque, keeping cinematographer Sean Price Williams’s camera on top of the characters and tied to the action. The Safdies want gut-deep immediacy from the actors and complete absorption from the audience.”

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