If the Safdie Brothers' last feature, Heaven Knows What, evoked The Panic in Needle Park with its cinema verite observation of the New York City heroin subculture, their impressive follow-up, Good Time, sees them continuing to draw inspiration from the gritty American movies of the 1970s, albeit with their own distinctive street edge. Led by Robert Pattinson, giving arguably his most commanding performance to date as a desperate bank robber cut from the same cloth as Al Pacino's Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day Afternoon, this is a richly textured genre piece that packs a visceral charge in its restless widescreen visuals and adrenalizing music, which recalls the great mood-shaping movie scores of Tangerine Dream.
The authority demonstrated here in the use of locations, lighting, sound, an anxiety-inducing shooting style and agitated editing — not to mention acting that is as invigoratingly in-the-moment as the breathless storytelling — more than justifies the elevation of co-directors Josh and Benny Safdie to the main competition in Cannes. The movie continues a trend of superior genre entries landing a slot in the premier global film showcase, though unlike, say, Drive, to name an entertaining recent example, Good Time never sacrifices its raw urgency to slickness. Those qualities, plus the head-turning work of Pattinson, should serve A24 well in a domestic release set for Aug. 11.
The opening scene pulls us instantly into a high-stakes emotional world. A social-services shrink (Peter Verby) attempts to guide nervous patient Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie) through some basic response tests, such as sentence interpretation and word comparison, while Sean Price Williams' camera crowds in on him, forcing us to share directly in Nick's trauma. Fragments of information expanded only minimally later on reveal there's been violence at home with Nick's Greek grandmother, and the silent tears that pool in his eyes inform us right off the bat that this is going to be a wrenching experience.
The painful intimacy of that scene explodes when Nick's brother Connie (Pattinson) storms into the room and hauls him out of there, screaming that he doesn't belong in a place only subsequently revealed to be a psychiatric treatment facility.
The action then shifts without a moment's pause to a bank robbery in Queens, with a sly racial commentary inferred by having Connie and Nick hold up an African-American cashier while wearing masks, sunglasses and hoodies that give them the appearance of black men.
The scene is almost unbearably tense, though the robbery seems to go without any major hitches. A brief exchange of dialogue that immediately follows conveys not only that Connie is fiercely protective of his hearing-impaired, intellectually disabled brother, but he also pushes him to overcome his handicap attitudinally. "You're incredible, do you understand?" Connie asks him rhetorically, establishing their George-and-Lennie bond. "I'm serious, do you think I could have done that without you standing next to me, being strong?" But unforeseen complications ensue, and Nick is apprehended during a panicked chase by cops.
That all this and more happens prior to and during the delayed opening credits is indicative of the film's relentless pacing, and given the extreme vulnerability of Nick in particular, some audiences may find it distressing to watch.
A different kind of tension that's no less electric pulsates through the scenes that follow. Connie manipulates his flaky girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) into paying Nick's bail, only to discover that her mother is sufficiently onto him to have blocked her credit cards, and that Nick has been removed from the volatile holding pen at Rikers to Elmhurst Hospital. A night of escalating chaos and violence follows as Connie goes to increasingly desperate lengths to save his brother from a fate he knows he won't survive.
That odyssey leads to various figures unwittingly being drawn into Connie's mayhem, notably Crystal (Taliah Webster, an understated natural), the self-possessed 16-year-old granddaughter of a Haitian woman (Gladys Mathon) who helps him out against her better judgment; and Ray (Heaven Knows What discovery Buddy Duress), a newly paroled, motormouth Ratso Rizzo-type with access to a stash of liquid LSD that might help them raise the cash to bail out Nick.
It's a testament to the propulsive power of the Safdies' direction and the perceptive character detailing of the script by Josh Safdie and regular collaborator Ronald Bronstein that Nick's disappearance for much of the action, while it's inevitably felt, brings no fatal loss of momentum. Instead, it's replaced by a different, energized dynamic between Connie and Ray. Their hastily improvised solution leads them on a careening caper where they break into Adventureland, a run-down theme park, encountering resistance from a determined security guard (Barkhad Abdi, from Captain Phillips).
The milieu and character insight here are consistent with the strung-out, generally luckless outsiders, constantly winging it in existences unfurling without a plan; and with the street-life situations that have defined the Safdie Brothers' films since their debut, Daddy Longlegs. While their latest feature is more conventionally structured, it's still loose, unpredictable and exciting in its cold-plunge immersion into desperate lives and sharply drawn relationships. That means even the accidental nobility of Connie and the subdued note of sentiment in the conclusion feel honest and quite affecting.
It's easy to see what draws actors to work with the directing team, who clearly encourage a freedom to experiment that allows someone like Leigh to make a vivid impression even in limited screen time. There's almost invariably a sense of deep-dish backstories, even of characters we meet only for the briefest time, and the interplay between experienced actors and nonprofessionals adds authenticity.
Duress delivers on the promise of his live-wire work in Heaven Knows What, with a lowlife portrait both funny and infuriating, and Benny Safdie makes Nick a hulking figure of heartbreaking pathos, with never a false moment. But the magnetic center is Pattinson, playing a driven man whose ethics may be questionable even if his motivation at all times is rooted in fraternal devotion. It's a performance of can't-look-away intensity without an ounce of movie-star vanity.
Good Time looks terrific, bringing a scrappy sheen to the Safdies' native borough. But more essential to its tight clench is the knockout underscoring, an almost nonstop blitz of intoxicating electronica from Brooklyn-based experimental composer Daniel Lopatin, who records as Oneohtrix Point Never. Lopatin also collaborated with Iggy Pop on an original closing-credits song, aptly titled "The Pure and the Damned." Throughout, the prog-rock synth sounds conjure echoes of the vintage films of William Friedkin, Michael Mann and perhaps a hint of Assault on Precinct 13 John Carpenter, and yet the sonic carpeting never feels derivative.
The movie is bracing stuff — lean and punchy — that heightens expectations for the Safdies' next project, the Martin Scorsese-produced Diamond District thriller Uncut Gems.
Production companies: Elara Pictures, in association with Rhea Films
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Barkhad Abdi, Buddy Duress, Taliah Webster, Peter Verby, Gladys Mathon, Necro
Directors: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Screenwriters: Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie
Producers: Sebastian Bear-McClard, Oscar Boyson, Jean-Luc de Fanti, Terry Douglas, Paris Kasidokostas Latsis
Director of photography: Sean Price Williams
Production designer: Samuel Lisenco
Costume designer: Mordechai Rubinstein
Music: Oneohtrix Point Never
Editors: Benny Safdie, Ronald Bronstein
Visual effects supervisor: Adam Teninbaum
Casting: Jennifer Venditti, Eleonore Hendricks
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Memento Films