In the back of a cop car, bleached hair askew and a look of Manson-esque intensity on his face, the camera closes in on Connie (Robert Pattinson). Rack focus fades the bars separating the back seat from the front until they’re almost invisible and the passenger looks invincible. This shot from the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time is one of the most memorable of the year. Pattinson’s eyes bore into you, colorless black holes that seem to tell you nothing and everything all at once. Whoever the man was that made his mark in Hollywood thanks to a tween fantasy is completely forgotten. Even Pattinson himself fades away entirely. There’s only Connie.
Constantine “Connie” Nikas, who would seemingly do anything for his mentally disabled brother, whose lies are artful, who’s willing to rob a bank for reasons we never fully understand. Good Time is his story, even if it’s not truly his alone. Vignettes introduce us to other players, but Connie is directing the show. It’s no wonder Pattinson was able to lose himself in such a role.
Good Time is part heist, part drama, part fever dream. It’s also one of the most tactile viewing experiences I had this year. Its frenetic experimental-techno soundtrack by Oneohtrix Point Never combined with its neon color palette and brilliant sound design evoke grittiness without relying on any of the more common cinematic tropes (you won’t find the trademark blue-and-gray tinting here).
When, after what seems like an incredibly long few scenes, we finally get the title card, it slides onto the screen in a blast THX-esque sound that left me with my mouth agape and the slightest smile on my face. It was reminiscent of a VHS tape and grimy video store floors and the New York of the ‘70s and soundscape of Blade Runner and all of it fit together so seamlessly I couldn’t believe it.
The world of Good Time is so lived in and fully realized and populated, it felt like I could plunge my hands into the movie and pull out its guts with my fists. “World building” so often refers solely to fantasy and sci-fi, but it’s what the Safdie brothers have done here. The New York they explore is technically real, but it’s a version of the city that feels like it’s free-wheeling through space and time. City hospitals, empty amusement parks, and outdated apartments form the backdrop for a mess that unfurls over the course of what can’t be more than 36 hours or so, but what a beautiful mess the Safdies make it.
At the same time, as beautiful as the film may be, it never loses its car-crash quality. We can’t look away, but what’s happening on screen is horrible. There is violence, yes, but the real horror is in Connie’s actions. He rides from scene to scene like a horseman of the apocalypse, bringing utter chaos and destruction to the lives of just about everyone he meets. He lays the world around him to waste, and he either doesn’t know it or he doesn’t care. Anything outside his goal to get his brother out of jail doesn’t matter, including what might be in his brother’s best interest.
Good Time could have been a crime movie that was all flash and no substance, but it manages to be something so much more. It’s reminiscent of the past without being beholden to it, blazing a way forward. Its scenes alternate between a fever pitch and a slow, deliberate unveiling. It’s a good time that’s not concerned with being one. It’s unmissable.
GOOD TIME is playing a limited engagement at The Music Box until February 8.