Film & TV

Good Time: A Spellbinding Bank-Robbery Thriller

Two desperado brothers in a city full of scam artists: just another make-or-break day in NYC    

Because movies with small marketing budgets tend not to break through the cultural clutter, you may not have heard of the bank-heist thriller Good Time, which hit theaters last August and grossed approximately $43.57 at the box office. But it’s one of the most spellbinding films of 2017, and now that it’s available on Amazon Prime’s streaming service, you should set aside two hours for it.

In rough outline, the film resembles one of the most riveting and re-watchable dramas of the 1970s, Dog Day Afternoon: Two bank robbers (in this case brothers), one of them with diminished mental capacity, encounter much more trouble than they bargained for in the process of ripping off an outer-borough bank, and in both cases, expertly modulated suspense intermingles with unforced, darkly comic aspects as the movie stretches out over a single day and night. Both films have an exceptionally keen feel for the strange vectors of the city’s landscape and the crazy characters who navigate it. It isn’t the first film for Good Time’s directors, the brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, but it constitutes a breakthrough attention-grabber comparable to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight or Matthew Vaughn’s Layer Cake — these being intensely focused low-budget movies that seemed bound to lead to high-profile, big-bucks jobs. (At the moment, the Safdies are developing a remake of 48 Hrs.)

Robert Pattinson, previously a pouty spokesmodel of a vampire in those dreadful Twilight movies, has developed into more of a 1970s-style character actor with a taste for playing bruised and dented men.

Robert Pattinson, previously a pouty spokesmodel of a vampire in those dreadful Twilight movies, has developed into more of a 1970s-style character actor with a taste for playing bruised and dented men. He disappeared into the role of a filthy, bedraggled Amazonian explorer in The Lost City of Z, and this time he plays Connie Nikas, the smarter of the two desperadoes, with Benny Safdie doing a superb job as his hulking, mentally challenged brother Nick.

Near the outset of the film, after a slow-burning bank robbery backed by a disquieting 1980s-style synthesizer score (it’s credited to Oneohtrix Point Never, a.k.a. Daniel Lopatin), Nick gets nabbed and sent to jail, while the fiercely loyal Connie tears off into the night to try to raise money to free him, committing a string of follow-up crimes in the process as the police close in from every direction. When Connie finds himself thrown together with a total stranger with whom he has nothing in common except that they’re both lowlifes, their mutual self-interest and utter lack of moral inhibition allows them to quickly form a working alliance — they’re like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Scum. Dryly contrasting with their shamelessness, an innocent black girl they use for their own purposes finds herself arrested for doing nothing while they’re in mid-caper. There’s some familiar New York attitude in that: Everyone is working a scam, so don’t be the sucker who falls for one.

Pattinson’s Connie is a classic anti-hero, repellent and attractive at the same time: You want him to keep finding an escape hatch, but you also want him to be caught in the end. He manages to stay an inch ahead of the cops all night by balancing out his many bad decisions (such as robbing the bank) with ingenious on-the-spot resourcefulness, improvising his way through one needle-scratch reversal after another devised by screenwriters Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein with the craftiness of Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers. Connie is like a virus that keeps probing for an opening, repeatedly rebuffed by the many defenses built specifically to stop attackers like him. But in a population bristling with people trained to be suspicious, he keeps using to his advantage the goodness inherent in even wary, cynical New Yorkers. Just often enough, he gets some space to work with because people are inclined to give a break to others in need, even strangers who, when allowed in the house to use the phone, start helping themselves to hair dye and chicken nuggets.

Yet even in crazed-fleeing mode, just how strange is Connie relative to New Yorkers in general? One reason he keeps evading capture is that New York is so experienced at, or even proud of, being blasé about weirdness. The most bizarre detail of Connie’s odyssey is when he opens a refrigerator owned by a Caribbean immigrant and finds in it nothing but unexplained amber liquids in jars. “Adventureland” reads the entry sign at a cheesy Long Island amusement park where Connie takes one of many detours on his increasingly improbable journey. It could have been the title of the movie, properly read as a sardonic, knowing allusion to the relentless kinetics of surviving on the knife edge of New York.