Born and raised in the epicentre of American independent film, New York City, the Safdie brothers – Benny and Josh – are the most exciting sibling duo of filmmakers working in cinema today. Steeped in shades of the artform’s hallowed past and coloured by their personal stories and inspirations, their cinema is animated by the restless character of the city that, in the Safdie brothers’ world, never, ever sleeps.
Like other New York natives – filmmaking giants such as Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick – the Safdies’ early work is strong and full of promise, displaying signs of the mastery that would follow. Daddy Longlegs (2009), loosely based on the brothers’ childhood, is a Cassavetian portrait of a father (Ronald Bronstein) ill-equipped to nurture his two sons. Their 2014 film Heaven Knows What confronts the despair and precarity of homelessness and heroin addiction; it stars Arielle Holmes – at that time, a non-actor discovered by Josh Safdie in New York’s Diamond District – whose real life inspired the film. Unsurprisingly, it’s gritty and memorable.
Good Time (2017) was the Safdies’ breakthrough film. Eluding simplistic categorisations or pithy descriptions like ‘a cinema of adrenaline’ or ‘a cinema of failure’, it announced the brothers’ talent and craft to the world, ensuring their works would no longer be confined to the film festival circuit, arthouse cinemas and the insular discussions of the most voracious cinephiles.
Small-time crook Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) enlists his brother Nick (Benny Safdie), who has an intellectual disability, to execute a bank robbery with him in Queens. After shedding their disguises in an alleyway, Connie and Nick escape from the scene in a getaway car. The grin on Connie’s face is short-lived; Nick, bruised and cut up, is captured by beat cops who stumble on him by chance. Feeling a sense of responsibility, Connie immediately sets out to free his brother. It isn’t long before Connie realises that the task won’t be swift or straightforward.
Good Time recalls the “sweaty urgency” of preeminent works from the New Hollywood epoch (mid 60s to early 80s), evoking the idea of New York as urban hellscape like the one depicted in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Its characters recall the haplessness of bank robber Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) in Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Dustin Hoffman’s ex-con in Straight Time (1978), and the fraternal tensions of the titular characters (Peter Falk and John Cassavetes) in Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky (1976). Yet there is no sense that the film is a rehash of, or even a paean to, that bygone era of excellent cinema; it is a creative work, an odyssey, that stands on its own.
Perhaps Good Time's most unique contribution to cinema is its frenetic, breathless rhythms. There are few, if any, moments of stasis – to process and reflect on the chaos that befalls Connie – the film inexorably hurtles forward towards compounding crises. No matter what Connie does, trouble sticks to him like glue. At every turn, he absorbs the blows of fate (or are they self-inflicted?) – breaking the wrong man out of a hospital ward, running headlong into the path of a determined security guard (Barkhad Abdi) – oscillating between the states of impassivity and panic. It’s for good reason that Pattinson’s attuned performance finally pulled him out from under the long shadow cast by his involvement in the teen vampire Twilight series. Nor is Good Time merely an exercise in style or film mechanics. Its emotional core – usually flimsy or sidelined in a crime thriller like this – of a brother trying in vain to make things right, never breaks, even as the action shifts to the rousing beats of Connie racing through the neon-lit, labyrinthine streets of Queens.
In the film’s opening scene, Connie barges into Nick’s meeting with his psychiatrist, Peter (Peter Verby). Tears fall from Nick’s eyes at Peter’s line of questioning. “How would you like it if I made you cry, would you like that?” Connie spits at Peter, dragging Nick out of the small office. When Nick mentions that it was their grandma’s idea to attend the session, Connie is dismissive: “Fuck grandma. It's just you and me. I'm your friend”. Clearly, Connie cares for his brother. Their hug in the facility’s lift is genuine and heartfelt; it’s perhaps one of the only moments where Connie’s actions aren’t cloaked in some scheme or stratagem. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t preoccupied with other things. The fast zoom to Connie’s face as he enters Peter’s office presages his narcissism, revealing that he, first and foremost, views the world from his own vantage point. And the Safdies’ cut from that opening scene to Connie and Nick, holding up a downtown bank, economically shows how easily Connie’s love for his brother can be supplanted by his own self-interest.
With Good Time and their follow-up Uncut Gems (2019), the Safdie brothers have ushered in an utterly original and captivating strain of American cinema; an achievement that cannot be understated. Good Time bridges the often-vast gap between the sensibilities of independent film and high-octane entertainment. The Safdies’ cinema is alive, raw, pulsating; an antidote to the commercial imperatives, formulas and templates that pervade contemporary, digital cinema.
– Nick Bugeja
Rent Good Time on Cinema 3
Starring Robert Pattinson, Josh and Benny Safdie’s career-defining heist thriller is a riveting and hallucinatory trip through the lower depths of New York’s crime underbelly.