The other unstoppable brother duo besides Mark and Jay Duplass, Josh and Benny Safdie, best known for collaborating on films like The Pleasure of Being Robbed, Daddy Longlegs, Lenny Cooke and Heaven Knows What, have struck indie gold again with their latest, Good Time. Though this time co-writing with Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie’s directorial style–largely influenced by the nightmarish and Kafkaesque aesthetic and narrative of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours–merges seamlessly with Benny’s, who plays the role of mentally challenged Nick Nikas. Like the pure spirit of the overly abused donkey, Balthazar, in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, Nick is often taken advantage of because of his slow, docile mental condition, usually by his own crime-loving brother, Constantine “Connie” Nikas (Robert Pattinson).
When Connie plucks him from a therapy session with Peter (Peter Verby), an eerily mellifluous-voiced gray-haired man trying to get to the core of Nick’s aggression, they end up heading to a local bank to rob a grand total of $65,000. Outfitted in facially form-fitting masks that perpetuate the stereotype of the black man as criminal, Connie is convinced the two have gotten away with the heist until, after opening the bag in their getaway car, a purple dye bomb pervades the space and causes the vehicle to crash. A scared and confused Nick can’t follow Connie’s instruction to act naturally when a cop car rolls up next to them and asks to talk. Nick instinctively bolts and sets off a chase that leads to his incarceration, while, conversely, Connie escapes in spite of being the true mastermind behind the crime.
Plagued with guilt and the need to free his brother from Rikers Island, Connie turns to his much older girlfriend–the term being rather loose–Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) for financial aid. The problem, unfortunately, is Corey’s reliance on her overbearing mother’s credit cards to provide said assistance, cancelled by the matriarch in question before Corey can use them at the bail bondsman’s (a caricature of the shyster/Shylock Jew, complete with yamaka). In an increasing state of desperation, Connie decides to take drastic action after the bail bondsman tells him that Nick has been taken to Elmhurst Hospital following an altercation with another inmate.
Determined to bust him loose from the hospital bed, things take a turn for the worse when Connie ends up unleashing the wrong man. But by the time he has this revelation, it’s too late, and he’s already ingratiated himself (every conman should be named Connie, after all) into the home of an elderly woman and her sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Crystal (Taliah Webster). Unfazed by Connie’s bizarre behavior, including stealing some bleach out of the bathroom cabinet to help disguise himself from the law, she goes along with it when he tells her that they have to take his “brother,” Ray (Buddy Duress), back to the hospital because he picked up the wrong person.
The nightmarish series of mistaken identities and foiled plans are only augmented–to an almost cartoonish extent–by the film’s score, which won the Cannes Film Festival’s Soundtrack Award. With every choice seeming to yield further catastrophic results, Connie and Ray are ever closer to being backed into the corner they can’t get out of. Meanwhile, Nick, the catalyst driving every action in the narrative, has been offscreen since his arrest. As the angelic innocent of the story, his absence from the frame for most of the movie serves as a more powerful tool than if the audience was actually to see any crosscut events befalling him.
The Safdie brothers, born and bred in NYC, know all the points to hit to make this one a classic in the annals of the genre labeled “New York movies.” Indeed, NY-centric details like a Cellino & Barnes ad on the TV assure Good Time‘s place as a film that could retrospectively join the ranks of other crime-oriented love letters to the city, like Mean Streets or Serpico. Just don’t expect to have a necessarily “good time” biting your nails as you watch.