It’s been a pretty damn great summer for movies, if you’re willing to look a little bit outside of the margins.
We’ve had some utterly fucking brilliant films: Baby Driver, Okja, Logan Lucky, The Big Sick, and so on and so on; and we’ll always have to endure the Emoji Movies and Book of Henrys of outrageous fortune in order to get there. And as the summer months come to a close, the Safdie Brothers (perhaps best known for 2014’s Heaven Knows What) have saved us the best for last: The best performance of the summer and probably of the year from Robert Pattinson, the best soundtrack, the best cinematography and perhaps the best story of them all.
It’s effusive praise, sure, but Good Time deserves every single accolade it’s going to receive over the course of the next six months. It’s After Hours directed by Frederick Wiseman on acid, a pure shot of neon adrenaline that’ll have you up by the 45-minute mark and fucking crushed by the time the credits roll. This crime thriller is a gorgeously-realized and deeply-felt wonder of a movie, the loving product of a brotherhood that could only have been produced by a brotherly connection as heavy as the one shared by Josh and Benny Safdie; and it’s a considerable expansion of their already immense talents as filmmakers.
We’re introduced to Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie in a surprisingly empathetic performance), who’s being questioned by his social worker (Peter Verby) about an incident with his grandmother which turned a little violent. It’s obvious he doesn’t have a great situation going on for him at home (at least it seems so at first), and when his older brother, an ex-con named Constantine (Pattinson), comes to pick him up, it’s obvious that Connie’s in conflict with the system that his brother’s placed in. He loves his brother and respects him, and wants to get him to the south, with enough cash that they can be free to live away from all of the controlling forces in their lives. So, Nick and Connie knock over a bank, dressed in garish masks with exaggerated features and construction worker day-glo, and it goes seemingly without a hitch for the first minutes. Connie’s even had the foresight to call ahead and get a chartered car to the airport. Well, that is until the dye-pack explodes, and paints the brothers red. Long story short, Nick gets arrested and Connie’s able to escape, and Nick gets put in jail and Connie has to scheme to get him out. He tries a bail bonds place, he’s $10,000 short. And so begins this uniquely American odyssey through the painstakingly-realized streets of Queens over the course of a single night, and it goes about as well for everybody as you’d expect.
What will rock you about Good Time is how utterly hilarious it is for much of its middle section, thanks to the particular talents of Jennifer Jason Leigh, playing the spoiled and emotionally unstable rich girl whom Connie dates and freely takes money from, and Buddy Duress, as a recidivist alcoholic who tells Connie one hell of a story in a White Castle parking lot. He’s utterly fucking brilliant, full of wiry energy and incredulous bluster, and his entrance into the film is one of the greatest comic delights in a year stacked with them. Yet it never totally abandons Connie after his entrance into the film, aside from one sequence in which the worst thing he could imagine happening to Nick in prison is confirmed to him, and it never stops presenting him in all of his gloriously complicated glory. There’s already been excellent scholarship about the racial elements of his manipulation and cruelty, as the particulars of his privilege allow him both convenient escapes from the law at the suffering of the black men (Barkhad Abdi’s security guard) and women (a Jamaican woman and her granddaughter, the latter played by the amazing young talent Taliah Webster) he comes into contact with, and it’s superbly crafted; obvious enough to be picked up upon by the most inattentive viewer and yet subtle enough not enough to overwhelm the film itself.
But even that copious amount of sliminess on Connie’s part can’t overwhelm the purity of the love he feels towards his brother, and so much of Pattinson’s performance is done in order to guarantee that you’ll still feel for him, regardless of his actions, by the end of the film. It’s Pattinson’s first time as a featured performer in which his particular blend of charisma and distance congeals into something completely and utterly memorable, and it’s probably the best single performance by a lead actor that I’ve seen all year, outside of perhaps Eric Ruffin’s in The Transfiguration (which is on Netflix now and you should check out after you see this). It’s a solidification and affirmation of a talent that has, for many years, been buried under the awful legacy of his work in big-budget features (a single line near the bottom of his actor bio in the press notes mildly proclaims his lengthy tenure as a vampire), and it’s utterly affecting. The final shot of his character in the film is bound to be infinitely controversial, depending on how much you wind up feeling for Connie, and its detractors will ultimately blame the Kuleshov effect for any emotion felt by their peers in the audience. That’s an argument that I don’t totally know if I buy — his care and love towards Nick in their early moments together goes a long way in ensuring some measure of good will on his behalf, regardless of how things totally go along the way — and Nick’s own ending is one of the most utterly beautiful and solid endings in recent memory.
As it stands, the Safdies have crafted a masterpiece here, a beautiful dark twisted fantasy of New York’s endless allure, of the kaleidoscopic communities found within its boroughs and the painful tragedies and utter bliss of their collisions, about the purity of love and the depravity inherent in trying to preserve it. Their New York is an utterly modern one, with images of the original Pepe the Frog (from Matt Furie’s Boy’s Club, not internet racists) covering sheets of blotter paper, intercut with NY1 commercial breaks stacked with ads for Celino and Barnes, whose name inspires anyone who’s ever watched a television within an NYC area code to sing along with their jingle. It’s cruel, it’s cold, it’s held together by heart and love and grit amongst all the concrete.
It has the best original soundtrack of 2017, and it’ll be hard for me not to randomly wander into the theater while seeing something else, lured in a fashion not dissimilar to the Pied Piper by Daniel Lopatin (perhaps better known as Oneohtrix Point Never) and his street Vangelis approach to acoustically matching this oxymoronic wonder. Good Time is the funniest tragedy you’ll see all year, the most exciting and engaging dirge you’ll encounter as well, and it is not to be missed. Stay through the credits, as well, as it has what might be the best-sung ending line in recent memory, and it’ll fuck you up.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.