There is one quiet scene in Good Time, and it’s the first, as Nick Nikas (co-director Benny Safdie) is asked to play word association with a social services psychiatrist (Peter Verby). The camera cuts back and forth in tight shots between the two of them, with the shrink gently pressing Nick more and more to explain his answers, and Nick becoming emotional—a single tear rolls down his cheek—as he is unable to explain himself. Nick is developmentally disabled, the psychiatrist is (likely) court-appointed, and moments later Nick’s degenerate brother Connie (Robert Pattinson) bursts in. He chastises the shrink for making Nick cry, then herds Nick out of the office and into a life of crime—and Good Time puts its foot to the gas and never lets up.
This is a movie about decisions, and two main characters who make only bad ones populate it. One always makes the best bad decision, and one always makes the worst bad decision. Everytime.
The first bad decision Connie makes—after taking Nick from people who could help him—is to rob a bank with Nick’s help. We see them standing in a teller’s line, wearing masks designed to make them look like black men. They also have bright orange vests on to make it appear as if they’re working construction nearby. The bank robbery goes off well enough, until Connie makes another bad decision—probably the best one under the circumstances—to have the teller go to the vault to gather more money. Although Connie and Nick ditch their robbery attire and masks and even have a livery driver waiting to take them to Port Authority in Manhattan, they don’t count on the anti-theft pack hidden with the cash. It explodes and covers them in fluorescent puce powder, rendering most of the money useless.
Connie hauls Nick to a fast-food restaurant to get cleaned up—Nick uses toilet water to get the powder off him at first—and stuffs the bag in the bathroom ceiling. Then, back on the street, nearly clean but clearly covered in anti-theft powder, Nick and Connie are chased on foot by cops until Nick crashes head-first through a glass door and is arrested.
Note: I’ve described only Good Time‘s first 15 minutes. The rest of the movie is so bonkers, so completely unpredictable—I was unsurprised by only one plot twist out of approximately a dozen—that it’s completely exhilarating. There’s little character development, but plenty of plot to keep it hurtling forward as Connie tries in vain repeatedly to bail Nick out of jail, yet it never feels episodic or disjointed or inorganic. It exists as a piece of pure cinema; all it asks is that you accept it and go along. Keep in mind, Connie only makes bad decisions. If you grimace at four-letter words, fistfights and the occasional screaming match between mother and daughter—the daughter, Corey, is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and she’s Connie’s sugar mama—Good Time ain’t for you.
But if you’re willing to let Good Time roll, it’s something to behold. It sounds cliché, but “hanging on the edge of your seat” is a phrase that applies. Whether Connie is scamming Corey, pleading with a bail bondsman, or dealing with characters who make worse bad decisions than he does—and there are several—there’s no letting up.
The script by Ronald Bronstein and co-director Josh Safdie has Connie tumble from one bad situation to the next, and Sean Price Williams’ cinematography is a wonderfully skittery jumble of handheld shots, extreme close-ups and static work that changes with Connie’s mood and circumstances. Daniel Lopatin’s emphatic electronic score ramps up tension or eases it at just the right moments, and there’s isn’t a false note from the actors.
Pattinson’s performance is worlds away from Edward the vampire, but he’s been turning in dynamite under-the-radar stuff, such as Maps to the Stars and The Rover, for years. Buddy Duress, who’s so good it’s almost like he’s not acting, pops up halfway through the movie as the guy who makes worse decisions than Connie, and Safdie is heartbreaking as Nick. There hasn’t been such a thrill ride in what feels like a decade. It’s one of the best films of the year.
This review first appeared in Salt Lake City Weekly.