“That was like the Coen brothers on speed!” the buffoonish man behind me cried, and loathe though I was to find accord with him after an hour and a half of repeating the onscreen action to his attending partner, I had much the same thought myself. After the bracing heroin drama Heaven Knows What and the new participation of Robert Pattinson, I had certain expectations of the team’s (co-directors Josh and Ben Safdie, co-writer Ronald Bronstein) attempt at a crime film – almost wall-to-wall hilarity was not among them.
Connie (Pattinson) is a two-bit New York hustler who decides shortly before the film begins to rob a bank with his mentally disabled brother Nick (Ben Safdie). I assume the “shortly before the film begins” part because his plan is straightforward, uncomplicated, and unconsidered. When it inevitably goes wrong and Nick gets caught, he rededicates himself to at least bailing – if not outright breaking – him out of prison. But Connie’s bank robbery says a lot about him. He’s a little more ambitious than the average runner. The other bums he runs across are happy to hustle drugs or lift from convenience stores, but he has higher aims. And he’s a little more resourceful than them, too – as the night wears on, he seizes on every opportunity put before him to grab ten grand or a way in to see Nick. He’s just never quite smart enough to see all the angles.
So things start going wrong, and fast. His first thought involves convincing his affluent girlfriend, Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to put the bail money on her credit card. That’s declined. And anyway, turns out Nick’s in the hospital and can’t be released. The hospital? That’s…less secure than prison, at least. By the time Buddy Duress shows up as a two-bit hood with a complicated relationship to $15,000 that Connie might find appealing, things have gone so far off the rails that it’s a wonder he’s still trying. His persistence would be admirable were he not spinning further from his goals with each step, rather than closer.
Among the factors that would complicate his evening no matter what, Connie is still trying to stay a step ahead of the law. The police know he was behind the robbery, and his face has shown up on TV every time he checks in. In interviews, the Safdie brothers speak about how they were inspired by watching Pattinson avoid – and dread – being recognized walking around New York, and wanted to construct a narrative that took advantage of that tension while keeping their milieu distinctively lower-class (Connie even relies on others for a cell phone). A man on the run is always a good premise for cinema, which we attend to watch people who know they’re being watched, and Pattinson possesses a fascinating physical awareness of of himself and his surroundings. In public scenes, his eyes go wide, his shoulders hunch, his movement becomes goal-oriented. When he can find privacy, he seems to gain stature in his comfort, claiming unearned authority in rooms with people usually a good deal smarter than he.
Underneath all of this is a lively story that finds every reasonable way to upset Connie’s process. Good Time is almost maddeningly well-plotted, giving him just enough rope with which to entangle himself and stumble over on. Every victory only paves the way to greater defeat. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams, one of the best of his generation, is given perhaps the most diverse and exciting toolbox he’s yet had, utilizing every means at his disposal to convey the unseen forces descending on Connie. From the opening shot, a helicopter hurdle towards a riverside office building – as propulsive and breathtaking as the similar one that opens The Dark Knight – we sense that not only is there a bigger budget at play than we’ve come to expect from, well, the sort of films Williams works on, but a bigger imagination for how to use those tools to the same creative ends he does on comparatively smaller films.
So the colors become more expressive, exaggerated especially when the heat’s on, and a late-in-the-film detour to an amusement park becomes pretty nearly a 70s Italian haunted house film for a hot second. One isn’t always treated to this sort of playfulness from a crime drama, the confidence to go silly and weird without betraying the underlying drama. For all its humor, Good Time is fundamentally about a guy coming to terms with the limitations of what he can do to help his brother. It’s just about that just enough to be a whole lot else. Like those films those Coen brothers make, it keeps you so entertained, you’re almost surprised it’s as moving as it is.