Leaping straight from the American independent scene into the (ostensible) prestige of Cannes with Good Time, Josh and Benny Safdie deliver one of the best films in competition. Following up the superb junkie drama Heaven Knows What (2014), the New York directors rewrite a familiar crime drama with their distinctive voices, creating a story that's at once gripping, formally thrilling and cannily aware of its social context. It may be too soon to say whether the Safdies will become Cannes perennials; but at this moment, they provide the official selection with a welcome dose of adrenaline.
Following an opening that sees Constantine “Connie” Nikas (Robert Pattinson) pull his mentally handicapped brother Nick (Benny Safdie) from a therapist interview (of sorts), Good Time wastes no time in getting going. After a bank robbery gone wrong, during which Nick gets taken by the cops, the camera sticks almost exclusively to Connie, tracing his increasingly desperate efforts to get his brother back. Practically impelled by the layered, enveloping score composed by Oneohtrix Point Never, the film’s intensity rarely ever lets up, snaking through the streets of New York (captured by cinematographer Sean Price Williams in a gorgeous neon haze) over the course of one night.
Just as Arielle Holmes anchored Heaven Knows What, here, Pattinson—who continues to curate a varied and interesting filmography—achieves something similar. There's an intelligence to his performance that draws us into Connie's frazzled psychology, his resourceful process. After Nick is taken to Rikers Island prison, the Safdies often hold beats that show Connie just thinking through each problem—which hospital floor his brother is held on; how to get the rest of the bail money—and desperate to find a way out. At every moment, there's a clearly delineated goal, with details and nuances teased out by textured, colorful shades of character. (A scene with three simultaneous phone calls at a bail bondsman’s office is a standout.) As the night progresses and the amount of “incident” accumulates, the story only becomes more loose and digressive. Minor characters along the way enrich the trajectory, particularly Crystal (Tallah Webster), a 16 year-old black girl whose grandmother helps Connie and who later gets pulled along for the ride; and Ray (Buddy Duress), a recently released inmate who relates to Connie his own wild, drug-fueled adventure from the night before.
It's a nighttime odyssey that can't help but recall After Hours in its general contours, if not necessarily that film's phantasmagoric, Kafkaesque nightmare. (In fact, Good Time’s poster explicitly mirrors that of After Hours, though with the clock replaced by a bottle of acid.) But the Safdies, working with a script co-written by Ronald Bronstein, achieve something markedly different. For one, it's closer to the grimy realism of the American independent scene, though still with a distinctive, harmonious aesthetic. For another, it's a genre piece not just influenced, but even defined by its social context—the drugs (particularly a bottle of acid that catalyzes the plot late in the film), the labyrinthine alleys, the mesmerizing pull of city lights—but more specifically the privileged position of its white male protagonist. Indeed, it’s a story that one could imagine ending five or ten minutes in were it not focused on the Nikas brothers, or someone from a similar demographic. The story's structure entails a kind of tunnel vision, the protagonist focused on a single goal; but the Safdies crucially convey that limited perspective while still expanding the filmic world. It's such that when Connie switches clothes with a security guard (played by Barkhad Abdi) just before the cops arrive, the immediate assumptions and marked lack of suspicion speak volumes. It's a clever approach, one that the Safdies take care to not overplay, not even towards the end, when Connie, very much at the end of his rope, condemns Ray—to whom he clearly considers himself superior—as incapable of making a “contribution to society.” The moment simply sharpens what was there all along.
Good Time's coda, crucially, shifts away from Connie, observing Nick once more as he's introduced into a special needs class. He's instructed to walk to the other side of the room whenever he agrees to a prompt—such as whether he's ever lied or likes candy— but even then, only if he wants to. "Choose your truth… Cross the room.” Good times, indeed.