Style over substance. Hell, more substance abuse than substance. Like a slice of Only God Forgives on acid, New York directors Benny and Josh Safdie’s fourth feature Good Time is a hallucinatory trip through the Queens underbelly, drowned in neon and electro, and not even as deep as a pothole on Astoria Boulevard. Even the vague character exploration of their previous film Heaven Knows What, with which Good Time shares its lowlife setting, is gone. It’s a roller coaster ride, and we are in the front cart with a bleach blonde Robert Pattinson. And what a wild ride it is. And sometimes a wild ride is all you need, certainly at 8:30 in the morning on the tail end of a Cannes festival, as Good Time is perfect turn-your-brain-off material for when you feel like you have done oxy and bourbon all night.
Connie (Pattinson) and his mentally handicapped brother Nick (Benny Safdie; makes you wonder if his brother sees himself as Robert Pattinson) botch a bank heist. Nick gets caught, but Connie manages to recover part of the money, and is only ten grand away from bailing his brother out. He tries to find ways to get his hands on the money to spring his brother loose on an incredible one-night odyssey through the seedy parts of New York. The brothers are of Greek ancestry, so think Hyper Homer.
The Safdie brothers’ previous films employed a frantic style of handheld, often unfocused shooting, kinetic editing, and a score that drowns out dialogue. Depending on where you stand on their films, you either see that as a formalist approach to their material and their protagonists’ lives, often characters that are unfocused and hyped up themselves, or you see it as a way of trying to hide that their emperors wear no clothes, and their stories are pretty much pointless. Their style creates an emotional distance to the characters, and is one of the reasons Heaven Knows What fails: it’s hard to find empathy for its lead character, a suicidal heroin addict, so overbearing is the visual and aural bombardment.
But for Good Time, the director duo has managed to dispatch much of the trickery, and it creates a more focused film with something that actually resembles a plot. Their films are always the cinematic equivalent of an energy drink, but this time they poured it over the story, with, quite frankly, insane twists that feel like a sugar rush, and anchored by an all-out central performance. With his deep-set eyes and pale complexion, sporting a fuzzy goatee, Pattinson is a perfect face for the environment Good Time is set in. It’s almost as if the British actor went a little too deep into his method acting research for the role, so lived-in is his portrayal of frantic hustler Connie, inventive if nothing else, in all his madcap glory.
Good Time finds exactly the right tone by dialing down the trademark stylistic flourishes, which are still there, but in smaller doses, and actually enhancing the storytelling this time. Focused on Pattinson and his dynamic with the characters he encounters on his improbably plotted night, the film never loses the viewer in a way the previous Safdie flicks did, always letting them ride along with Pattinson in shotgun, holding on for dear life. It doesn’t hide the fact that the screenplay itself is shallow in its ideas, relying only on incident, but it strikes a good balance between atmosphere and crime caper. Sometimes cotton candy is all you need, and Josh and Benny Safdie provide it in spades. A tacked on epilogue comes off as an attempt to create some depth, a reflection on the madness that came before it, but it feels like an obligatory check-in with a major character that went missing from the film.
That character is not the one inhabited by Jennifer Jason Leigh, criminally underused in what amounts to little more than a cameo. The same goes for Oscar-nominated Barkhad Abdi, whose career after his breakout performance in Captain Phillips has unfortunately been reduced to these non-roles. The film rests firmly on the shoulders of Pattinson, the only other memorable work done by Buddy Duress, who (and his name might have some influence here) turns the film at times into a hilarious buddy movie, and Taliah Webster as a girl who unwittingly provides Connie with a temporary hideout.
Good Time is a step in the right direction for the Safdie brothers, and a combination of working with Pattinson and perhaps a prize of some kind on Sunday could open bigger doors for the New York natives. Hopefully they will find more substance behind those doors, as their raw talent shows, but they currently provide little more than an experience, and still need to mature as directors before they can become the voices of a new generation. They have their finger on the pulse, but can’t transform that into a coherent idea just yet. For now, appreciation of their works hinges on whether you like roller coasters or not.