You know shit is about to hit the fan in Good Time, Joshua and Benny Safdie’s thrilling new crime movie, when two white guys, posing as a pair of black guys in heavy construction gear, stroll into a bank to rob it. It is all very matter of fact. Walking to the bank, they put on a pair of masks: overwrought faces with the overlarge lips, puffy cheeks, and bulbous eyes that have chased black people through the centuries. They’re unmistakably grotesque. But they’re also just this side of believable, causing no immediate sense of panic. The disguises are just as much a successful imitation of another race as they are a send-up of the tough, honest working class. When the brothers walk out, calmly, with over $60,000 in cash, making their way to an alley to shed their disguises and reemerge as white guys in hoodies and Ecko jackets, you almost think they’ll get away with it. In fact, one of them does. Sort of.
The brothers Joshua and Benny Safdie, 33 and 31, are rising stars on the New York independent scene whose movies are vibrant odysseys about their characters’ alienation from the rest of the world—and also their embeddedness within it. In their movies, “the world” equals the New York where the Safdies grew up—particularly street-level views of the city, rife with people, steeped in a sense of place. Good Time, their fourth feature-length collaboration (including the 2013 documentary Lenny Cooke, and not including their numerous short films) is no exception.
In Good Time, the streets of New York City get transformed into a grit-streaked, neon playground for a white guy behaving badly. The Safdies definitely have an eye on the social dynamics at play in that premise, which is exemplified by that bank robbery. But just as much, if not more so, they have an eye on the broader moral cruelty of it, which is only partially a matter of race. This is, at heart, a movie about a guy taking advantage of the world around him, attentive to all the structures, assumptions, and psychological nits that make this possible. It wouldn’t suit the movie’s moral universe for a sense of equity to enter into that equation, so it never does. This is apparent from the start, in the differences between Nick and Connie, and in the freedom of one man and the imprisonment of another. Instead, the things that work out for some people clearly, and often cleverly, do so at the heavy expense of others. It’s a movie in which the true victims of crime aren’t necessarily its intended targets, but rather the people who simply happen to be there and are available to be manipulated when it’s happening. This is as true of the two brothers at the center of Good Time as it is of anyone else.
Connie, played with ferocious intensity by Robert Pattinson, isn’t a character so much as he’s an unpredictable force—something of a Safdie trope, though not one they’ve expressed with quite as much raw clarity as they have here. Wild-eyed and jittery as a raw nerve, Connie schemes and scams, wriggling his way out of snares with the quick-witted street smarts of a man for whom survival is the sole instinct. He’s well practiced. His brother, Nick (played by codirector Benny Safdie), meanwhile, is developmentally disabled, a bit lost in the world that Connie seems to thrive in. Nick doesn’t make plans; he goes along with them. And when the cops bear down on the brothers after the bank robbery, it’s Nick, not Connie, who finds himself in detention at Rikers. It’s Nick—who wears his sense of abjection right on his face, and whose struggle to express himself or to act on his own behalf becomes one of the movie’s central tragedies—who suffers. It’s Connie, the de facto mastermind, who acts.
Good Time is rife with a sense of inequity, which is the secret to why it’s so thrilling and a key to why it feels so dangerous. The Safdies’ movies often cling to chaotic personas, be they the kleptomaniac at the heart of The Pleasure of Being Robbed (directed by Josh) or the lovesick heroin addict of Heaven Knows What. In Good Time, there’s the woman Connie dates and uses for money (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh); the black security guard (Captain Philips’s Barkhad Abdi) Connie beats up, drugs, and disguises as a thief to get hauled away by cops; the junkie Connie accidentally rescues from the prison wing of a hospital, then manipulates in a scam to raise money for his brother’s bail; and the impressionable black teenage girl he persuades to steal her mother’s car, then leaves hanging when they’re caught by the cops. This is the carnage of Connie. These are the people unwittingly sucked into his world. The movie isn’t overly concerned with why the world works the way it does. It doesn’t explain why Nick, for example, is one of the few white guys in his Rikers prison cell, perhaps because that is self-evident. Nor does it explain how Connie, whose face is in the news, could wheel a prisoner right past a security guard out of a hospital. The improbability of his pulling it off is essential to the movie. Connie isn’t some resounding criminal success (otherwise his brother wouldn’t have landed in jail). He’s a guy scraping by by the skin of his teeth—manipulating the world as we understand it to get there.
Like Connie, who’s always got his eye trained strictly on how to get out of the latest bind, Good Time seems to occlude all sense of past or future. The movie is very much rooted in the present, adapting, swerving, shifting to navigate all the forces that seem to be throwing it off course. This only suits the Safdies’ characters, who are often displaced or merely out of sorts—occasionally even homeless. Above all, they’re restless. The Safdies’ last movie, the remarkable Heaven Knows What (2015), took on the wild, debilitating ecstasy of multiple forms of addiction: love and heroin. The movie stars Arielle Holmes and is based on her own memoir of homelessness and addiction, which is but one of the reasons its sense of chaos feels so natural. There, as in Good Time, the Safdies keep their action street-level and unglamorous, homing in on their characters with close-ups that seem to cut them off from the world while firmly connecting them to each other—that is, until the characters are on the run. Then, suddenly, the rest of the world comes until view: The camera hovers, godlike, above them as they move; arguments begin to play out on streets that, we realize, are crowded with people.
Good Time and Heaven Knows What have a freewheeling energy that I typically associate with comedy. The Safdies’ earlier short films—such as 2008’s There’s Nothing You Can Do, a four-minute comedy about a guy complaining about a crying baby on a bus—were loose studies of personality whose energy the brothers’ recent work has only heightened. “If Jean Vigo, John Cassavetes, Buster Keaton, Woody Allen and Charlie Chaplin had a deformed child,” they once told Interview Magazine, “we would be their best friend.” The whimsical spontaneity of that self-assessment is still here: It’s what makes Good Time feel like it’s flying off the rails. But that attitude has grown richer, and the street setting has only become more pointed.
These are characters who seem to live their lives in public. Part of what makes the Safdies’ films feel so personal is that theirs isn’t just a city recognizable as a collection of local monuments and notable street corners, though there’s that, too. Instead, New York genuinely seems to become a state of mind, sometimes a brutal one. You can sense it everywhere. The music, by Oneohtrix Point Never, is as omnipresent as a Hans Zimmer score, and far more menacingly textured, adding a ripple of electric current throughout the entire movie. In the hands of cinematographer Sean Price Williams, meanwhile, Robert Pattinson’s face is a blank canvas, fit to be splashed with every psychedelically vibrant color of the city. Pattinson’s visage becomes its own technicolor wonder; through it, we see the city, in all its fury, with all its chaos and lack of balance, brought constantly to life. We also get a taste of Connie’s own inner life, with his shifting mental states painted right there on his brow, made resplendently complex through constant clashes of color. The violence in the movie is furious, too, with repeated punches to the face edited to amp up the sense of the fist flying out of one frame into the next. Characters don’t merely walk from one place to the next; tight, wide frames make every bounce in their step seem weirdly ferocious, their heads bouncing around the frame like charged-up atoms on the loose. Pent-up energy, particularly Connie’s, bespeaks the chaos to come.
Good Time is a movie that’s as thrilling to watch as it is sometimes uncomfortable to sit through. A shot of police lights blinking on Pattinson’s face as he watches two black people get carried away in a cop car and an ambulance, respectively, while he walks free, more or less sums that up. The Safdies are often described in terms of what their movies owe to the city symphonies of the ’70s—movies like Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park, to which Heaven Knows What drew more than its share of comparisons. True enough. But the Safdies also strike me as utterly modern. And Good Time is one of the best contemporary New York movies in recent memory. It is a movie for our times—in large part because it does us the courtesy of not reminding us, didactically, that it is one.