I wrote the following review of the Safdie brothers’ Good Time, my favorite American film of 2017, for Cinefile Chicago. It opens at the Music Box Theatre in 35mm tonight.
Benny and Josh Safdie’s GOOD TIME (New American)
Music Box Theatre – Friday-Thursday, 9:30pm, and Friday and Saturday, Midnight
The American heist movie enjoyed something of a resurgence in 2017 with the releases of LOGAN LUCKY, BABY DRIVER and GOOD TIME. While the first two of these films are enjoyable, comedic, populist entertainments, the Safdie brothers’ movie is, by contrast, a trickier, more troubling and ultimately more satisfying thing: a breathlessly paced thriller centered on an unlikable protagonist (who is brilliantly played by a charismatic actor) that continually challenges viewers by making disturbing asides about racism in contemporary America—beginning with the fact that the pre-credits heist is pulled off by the main characters, brothers Connie and Nick Nikas (Robert Pattinson and co-director Benny Safdie), in blackface—while also never slowing down enough to allow us to process what’s happening until it’s over. This provocative mishmash of contradictory elements, and the almost-assaultive quality with which they’re put across, has proven too much for some critics, including the New York Times‘ A.O. Scott who accused the Safdie brothers of dubiously including “racial signifiers” that he feels can be interpreted in a multitude of ways but that the filmmakers ultimately don’t care anything about. My own take is that the Safdies are subtly but unambiguously critiquing Connie Nikas for the way he plays the race card throughout the film. Just look at the memorable scene set in Adventureland: Connie uses his white privilege to his advantage, breaking and entering an amusement park after hours to find a bottle of abandoned LSD worth thousands of dollars then walking away scot free with his white criminal accomplice while allowing two innocent black people to take the fall and go to jail. The scene is about as damning of an indictment of racial profiling as one could ask for. I suspect what really makes Scott uncomfortable is the fact that the Safdies are asking viewers to admire Connie’s cleverness in thinking on his feet and improvising a plan as he goes along while simultaneously finding him morally reprehensible. I also don’t know what Scott is talking about when he faults the film for its “bad lighting” and “avoidance of prettiness,” qualities that are much better ascribed to the Safdies’ previous film, the urban junkie-drama HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT. While the two films do share a similar sense of gritty verisimilitude (especially in the extensive use of exterior New York City locations, which harkens back to the Film School Generation of the 1970s in the way it seemingly turns urban spaces into a giant playground), GOOD TIME is also much more daring in how it juxtaposes its “street cred” with a bolder sense of aesthetic stylization—one where helicopter shots, neon lighting, bodies-in-constant-motion and a pulse-pounding electronic score all blend together into a gorgeous and expressionistic swirl. At the end of the film, when Connie’s luck has finally run out for good, we see him in an extreme overhead shot attempting to run from the police but looking as helpless and trapped as a rat in a maze. It’s a marriage of form and content worthy of comparison to Fritz Lang or Alfred Hitchcock, a moment of pure cinema to renew one’s faith in the medium. (2017, 101 min, 35mm) MGS