'Good Time' review

Poor Taylor Lautner. A few years from now, when Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart are commonly regarded as two of the best thespians of their generation, the third member of the Twilight trio will probably be left to wonder just what the hell happened. When that franchise came out, it was a box office bonanza- and also a total joke. If you told anyone at the height of Twilight mania that its two main stars would be viewed as indie darlings in less than a decade, most cinephiles would have laughed in your face. And yet, here we are. In his latest film, Good Time, Pattinson once again breaks out of his Edward Cullen persona to deliver a dynamic portrayal of a messy, unlikable character. Pattinson already dazzled me once this year in James Gray's adventure epic The Lost City of Z, but ever since Good Time's Cannes premiere, people in the film world have been raving about the actor's turn here. And he's undoubtedly impressive, fully committing himself to both the character of Connie Nikas and the highly urgent world that directors Josh and Benny Safdie have created.

I just wish that the film itself matched up to the talents of the actor at its center. In terms of its surface level pleasures, Good Time is an incredibly appealing package. The film is drenched in neon, accompanied by a grimy style that recalls the classics of 1970s cinema in a bold and striking way. And on top of that, the Safdie Brothers clearly know how to frame an action scene, giving the proceedings a sense of intensity and a propulsive flow that carries the movie during its best moments. But for all of its skillfulness and technical wizardry, Good Time left a bitter taste in my mouth. It's a very unpleasant film to sit through, and while that could be overlooked by some narrative sleight of hand, the whole thing ends up feeling rather hollow. Even with a rollicking start and a handful of thrilling moments, it's impossible to shake the sense that the story is utterly overwhelmed by the constant attempt to wow the audience with style and cinematic bravado. It's a fascinating disappointment, but a disappointment nonetheless.

Connie Nikas (Pattinson) is a small-time criminal and hustler, but in an odd twist, he's also highly protective of his brother Nick (Benny Safdie), who is mentally disabled. Even with this in mind, Connie isn't opposed to using Nick as his wingman on bank robberies and heists, a decision that he'll likely later come to regret. After a job goes wrong, Nick ends up being imprisoned, and Connie is determined to get him out on bail. He's $10,000 short though, and he wants him out of prison over the course of a night. With a plan in his head, Connie cons and hustles his way through the seedy streets of New York City, hoping to scrounge up enough cash to save his brother from a nasty stay at Riker's Island. The journey will take him in some interesting, unexpected directions, and the result is nothing short of completely insane.

There's no doubt in my mind that Josh and Benny Safdie are talented filmmakers with vision to spare. Good Time is a very immersive experience, and the first 20 minutes or so of this film are intoxicating, brilliantly gripping stuff. The Safdies have a unique ability to focus on faces, zeroing in on the sweat, the pulsating intensity, the panic of each and every moment. They know how to frame shots, they know how to make things feel urgent, they're great at creating a sense of desperation and chaotic anger. I am fully certain that the Safdies will eventually make a great film, but in order to do that, they will have to match their stylistic sensibilities with a narrative that actually works. All of the running and shouting in Good Time eventually grows exhausting, and the grim nature of the whole project is damn near suffocating. Good filmmakers can create tension and propulsive action for a few minutes, but it takes great filmmakers to sustain that momentum for an entire feature. Unfortunately for us, the Safdies just aren't there yet.

Many of Good Time's problems can be traced back to its central character, which is slightly perplexing considering the fact that Robert Pattinson's performance is so objectively terrific. He's well out of his element here, playing a raspy con man who will basically lie, cheat, and deceive his way out of anything. Pattinson is great at conveying a sort of grungy empathy- it's easy to see why so many people want to like Connie. He's initially defined by his unwavering loyalty to his brother, but that fades as the film moves forward and you reach a simple conclusion- Connie is the villain here. He will throw anyone under the bus in order to get what he wants, and while he claims to be doing things in order to save his brother, the havoc that Connie wreaks is destructive, having a deeply negative impact on so many people.

Good Time relies on that sense of moral ambiguity, and many are praising it for placing you in a difficult conundrum as an audience. The film would like to think that, as a viewer, you're never sure whether you should admire Connie's grit or respond with dismay to his lack of an ethical compass. Ultimately, I never felt that in any conceivable way- from his introduction in the movie, it's abundantly clear that Connie is a horrible person. Even if you praise his devotion to his brother, his abuse of him is worthy of condemnation. He doesn't seem to have his best interests in mind, and to be honest, beyond a very short scene towards the end of the film, there's very little nuance to Connie's character. He's a sociopath through and through, and even though he doesn't escape justice in the end, the film seems to let him off the hook in a way that I felt betrayed the greater narrative.

In a vastly different film, you can see this story playing out to remarkable effect. The material is ripe for a messy take on the idea of brotherly love, a multi-layered look at a character who will stop at absolutely nothing to rescue his brother from an unjust punishment. Instead, the Safdies make two critical mistakes- they create a character who is morally bankrupt, a pathological liar who has a serious disregard for any human life, and they turn the film into an episodic journey of semi-comedic lunacy, ridiculous incidents that are meant to be either amusing or suspenseful. They remove emotion from the equation, and so much of the film is spent on Connie's bad behavior that you forget why all of this is happening in the first place. Good Time starts and ends with Nick, but everything in between fails to operate as any kind of connective tissue to his story. Connie doesn't care if he screws over his girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a mild-mannered security guard (Barkhad Abdi), or a vulnerable teenager girl (Taliah Webster)- he just wants his brother back, a brother who he forces into a life of crime.

I know that the Safdies want Connie to be some kind of sympathetic anti-hero, but I felt nothing but disdain for him. That sense of disgust was only enhanced by the atmosphere, which is a genuine struggle to describe. It is thoroughly enticing at first, with all the neon lighting and fast-paced insanity, but there's a sickening element that later emerges, a feeling of griminess that is almost sickening. This is the kind of movie where you feel like you need to take a shower after seeing it- Good Time is deeply unpleasant in every possible way. Part of this can be chalked up as a result of setting, and part of this, once again, goes back to the fact that this is a miserable movie about miserable people. It is set in a world of ugliness and hate, and it is disturbing for no particular reason.

Good Time is handsomely made, and if the Safdies truly set out to make a vicious, borderline repulsive film about unlikable criminals, then they succeeded. But for the life of me, I can't make out why this thing had to be such a scuzzy mess. Good Time feels like misery for the sake of it, and while a better film could have left you rooting for a flawed hero against impossible odds, this one just makes you hate him more and more with each step of the way. It features an undeniably effective style, yet it seems to abandon both its narrative and emotional core in favor of surface level elements that grow stale with astounding speed. I expected to love this film, and while the pieces are in place, Good Time just can't match up to its ambitions.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                               (6/10)

Images courtesy of A24