There’s no escaping the influence of the 1970s on today’s popular culture, especially American independent film. It’s not hard to see why: the New Hollywood filmmakers of that era prized autonomy and authenticity, blazing a trail that many young filmmakers find impossible to resist.
The gritty realism and alienated characters of 1970s crime stories — such as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon — seem to cast an especially strong spell. The allure of pre-gentrification New York City as seen in those and other films of the time certainly doesn’t hurt.
Claiming both Manhattan and the outer borough of Queens as their twin hometowns, filmmaking brothers Joshua and Ben Safdie have set all five of their fiercely independent feature films in New York City. Both still in their early thirties — which means they were born just after the 1970s — the Safdie brothers maintain a shared creative obsession with the marginalized, forgotten people living in the long shadows of the city. It’s almost as if the ’70s never ended.
Good Time is the Safdie brothers’ breakout picture. Their previous, decidedly noncommercial features have screened at Cannes, Sundance and other prestigious film festivals, often to wide acclaim. But it took movie star Robert Pattinson — who approached the brothers about working together — for the Safdies to reach the next level. (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Captain Phillips’ Barkhad Abdi join Pattinson with small roles in Good Time.)
Retaining all the rough-hewn edginess that has characterized the Safdie brothers’ films, Good Time shows a new level of sophistication — if a manic, half-crazed fever dream can be called sophisticated.
The film takes place over the course of a single day and night as a bank robbery perpetrated by Connie (Pattinson) and his mentally challenged brother Nick (Ben Safdie) quickly goes awry. Connie spends the rest of the 99-minute film navigating Queens’ dark underbelly as he struggles to get his brother out of jail and start a new life elsewhere. Each bad decision and resulting misfortune renders that dream more remote.
Other than vague references to difficult childhoods, the film never gives us any indication of how the onscreen brothers wound up as street criminals. All attention goes to what’s happening from one harrowing moment to the next as the propulsive film rapidly progresses. That laserlike focus constitutes the movie’s primary strength as well as its principal flaw. The ironically titled Good Time immerses viewers in an enthrallingly vivid nightmare, but one that leaves little room for the emotional resonance of the most memorable crime stories.
With this year’s The Lost City of Z and now Good Time, Pattinson has become unrecognizable as the teen heartthrob who carried the Twilight franchise through five financially successful films. Capable of disappearing completely inside carefully constructed characters, Pattinson’s transformation to serious actor has been nothing short of heroic. Seldom has a bit of aging (he’s 31 now) seemed to benefit a screen actor so much.
Shot in an atmospheric style on 35mm film and mostly in extreme, claustrophobic close-up, Good Time avoids the shaky camera that has undermined a few recent independent films. As an expression of low-budget retro cinematic style, it has few competitors so far this year, which surely bodes well for the future of Safdie brothers films.
Good Time opens today, August 25, at the Elmwood and Canal Place theaters.