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The Current Debate: Race in "Good Time"

The Safdie brothers get up close and personal with America in the age of Trump.
In the first scene of Good Time, the latest from directors Josh and Benny Safdie, Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) barges into an office where a social worker is interviewing his brother Nick (Benny Safdie), who has a mental disability and impaired hearing. From there, the two brothers are off to the races, as Benjamin Mercer writes at Reverse Shot:
Almost immediately after, Connie is hauling Nick along with him on an ill-conceived robbery of a bank branch in Flushing, Queens. “Do you think I could have done that without you standing next to me, being strong?” Connie reassures Nick right after the job—and just before a paint bomb goes off in their bag of stolen cash, filling the cab they’re in with red vapor and sending it off the road. The accident, an eye-poppingly entropic moment staged by the Safdies and captured as if on the fly by cinematographer Sean Price Williams, sends the two thieves scrambling onto the street and into a Domino’s bathroom to clean themselves off. Not long thereafter, Nick gets nabbed by the cops and hauled off to Rikers Island.
Connie spends the next 24-odd hours pursuing increasingly desperate schemes to spring Nick from custody, on bail or by other means, while he, in turn, is pursued by police. There’s not much time to consider his motives: the film bounces from one crazed, neon sequence to the next, accompanied by a loud, sometimes overbearing electronic score. But as Alison Willmore writes at BuzzFeed, we eventually get some hints about what makes Connie tick:
We come to understand Connie pretty well by the end of Good Time, just from seeing how he operates - his puffed-up grandeur, his sense of wounded injustice, his ruthlessness. The film invites you to care about what happens to him without rooting for him, especially in its final act, when Connie and Ray (Buddy Duress), the fellow traveler he's picked up along the way, kill time in a stranger's apartment. The sun comes up, the atmosphere acquires the pinched feeling of an impending monster hangover, and it becomes increasingly clear that whatever happens to Connie, he's not going to figure out a way to fix the mess he's made. And yet that's when he lays into Ray, sneering at this fresh-out-of-prison doofus he doesn't want to admit is his funhouse reflection, and proclaiming his superiority to the "fuckup," despite the two men being in the same dire situation.
This momentary glimpse of Connie’s character, of his essential contempt, comes late in a film that seems intent on practically overpowering its viewers with raw energy, and it’s not immediately clear why it matters. Yet I think it’s the key to making sense of the entire film, as Conor Bateman begins to do at 4:3:
Connie cares only for his brother, but as the film wears on he seems more driven by fulfilling a task he's set for himself than the eventual release of Nick. He sees the world as filtered through snatches of public access television and decades-long crime dramas; everything and everyone bends to the accepted and assumed order of things, which Connie uses to his advantage. In one striking sequence, he plays off the police by beating and drugging a black security guard (Barkhad Abdi) and taking his uniform. When the NYPD arrive and see a black man, disheveled and disoriented on the floor of an amusement park ride, they don't bother to investigate beyond the most cursory questions.
Good Time is in fact rife with examples of Connie’s understanding of race and gender—like the masks he and Nick wear while robbing the bank, which give them the appearance of black men, his approach to cops, or the way he fakes intimacy to force a teenage black girl into an unwitting accomplice. As A. O. Scott writes at The New York Times, it all seems to add up to something:
This pattern does not seem accidental. The question is what it means - what degree of self-consciousness or critical distance “Good Time” brings to its depiction of bottom-of-the-barrel white privilege. You could infer a satirical dimension if you wanted to, or even a righteous indictment of what a lowlife can get away with if he has Mr. Pattinson's complexion. Or you could look at the film's riot of racial signifiers - the musical and pop-cultural references as well as the demographics of the setting - as a form of trolling, a coy, self-disavowing provocation.
Scott goes on to argue that the movie is ultimately too concerned with its own cool to give this question its due; I agree to a point, but I think it’s worth considering what the film is after. At The Chicago Reader, Ben Sachs quotes the same passage from Scott’s review and responds:
In other words, to what end are the Safdies provoking their audience? What do they intend for us to take away from the film about criminal behavior or the milieu these lower-class criminals inhabit? That Pattinson is so good at scamming any person he encounters suggests tears in our social fabric-holes where amoral, ratlike individuals like him can get through. But in its intense focus on the protagonist, the film feels too enraptured with his actions to criticize them. The brilliant aesthetic of Good Time conveys the adrenaline rush Pattinson experiences as he races from one scam to another, the thrill he attains from living outside the law. While I don't believe that art must provide its audience with a moral compass, I do believe that a deliberately amoral perspective ought to guide audiences to greater insight than those Good Time provides.
There’s certainly a kind of comfort in the belief that a movie like Good Time should concern itself with giving us insight into the amoral tendencies of a character like Connie, but the omission of such clear-cut moralizing probably wasn’t accidental. Rather, as K. Austin Collins writes at The Ringer, Good Time seems more like an effort to reflect our time as it really is:
Good Time is a movie that's as thrilling to watch as it is sometimes uncomfortable to sit through. A shot of police lights blinking on Pattinson's face as he watches two black people get carried away in a cop car and an ambulance, respectively, while he walks free, more or less sums that up. The Safdies are often described in terms of what their movies owe to the city symphonies of the '70s—movies like Jerry Schatzberg's The Panic in Needle Park, to which Heaven Knows What drew more than its share of comparisons. True enough. But the Safdies also strike me as utterly modern. And Good Time is one of the best contemporary New York movies in recent memory. It is a movie for our times—in large part because it does us the courtesy of not reminding us, didactically, that it is one.
Instead of the comforting distance that would come from portraying Connie as a criminal Other, Good Time reflects just how narrow the distance is between Connie’s privilege and the privilege of other white people, and how easily he uses that privilege to trample on less-privileged people for nothing more than his own short-term gain. Unfortunate as it is, that is indeed a movie for our times.
The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.

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