Since Nightcrawler, no film has better distilled American malaise better than the Safdie brothers’ ironically-named Good Time. The film stars Robert Pattinson in a breakout role as Connie Nikas, an on-the-lam criminal in New York City trying to bail his mentally disabled brother Nick out of jail after roping him into a failed bank heist. As he hustles to come up with the $10,000, his night snowballs into a frenzied crime spree that feels utterly surreal as it plunges him into the grime of Brooklyn’s underworld.
Like the nightmare odyssey of Taxi Driver, Good Time suctions us into the paranoia of its protagonist. Pattinson is astounding in the part of a small-time criminal, single-handedly fueling the film’s adrenaline rush with his brashness and anti-establishment rage. The film’s breaking-point tension is further amplified through its erratic electro-pop score, which grates against our concentration and lodges itself in our brains like a rickety, ill-devised time bomb set to go off at any moment.
Good Time‘s cinematography is also key, lending it an urban luridness all its own. Its haywire narrative radiates with jarring neon colors that make the city shape-shift like a toxic kaleidoscope – and flicker like a doomed arcade game whenever the camera cuts to an overhead view. The fatalism of these high-angle shots coldly counterbalances Connie’s crazed expectations that he will manage to beat the odds and bail out his brother.
Echoing HBO’s New York noir series The Night Of, Good Time uses sprawling images of the urban grid to suggest an inevitable trap around its protagonists – one riddled with dangers for America’s disadvantaged. Through an identity mix-up between Connie and a black security guard, the Safdie brothers incorporate a damning critique of our justice system’s racial disparities, as the officer tries to arrest Connie, only to have the latter beat him unconscious, steal his uniform, then effortlessly frame him as an intruder at the amusement park where he’d been scouring for a bottle of LSD to sell for bail money. “The balance of moral crookedness and conscience in Good Time is a complex one,” notes IndieWire. “That the film works such social nuance into what otherwise amounts to a breathless pulp thriller is perhaps the most impressive of its achievements.”
Locking us into Connie’s rollercoaster quest to liberate his brother, Good Time infects us with the virus of free-floating anxiety that continues to pervade American culture. As the Safdie Brothers send us hurtling through a labyrinth of impersonal institutions and anarchic drug dens, they guarantee a cinematic experience that we will be processing long after the chaotic ride has come to a halt.