Wednesday, 25 October 2017

The Revelations in the Safdie Brothers’ “Good Time”

Josh and Benny Safdie are two filmmaking brothers whose new film stars Robert Pattinson as a petty criminal who manipulates and exploits those around him for his own purposes, named Constantine Nikas, a.k.a. Connie; so it’s entirely apt that the film begins and ends with the person closest to Connie, his brother, Nick (Benny Safdie), in therapy. Good Time’s story is one of a person who thinks of and sees everything only in terms of his own goals, even while upholding the the commonplaces of familial bonds and duties. Connie may genuinely think that he’s taking care of Nick, who is mentally disabled and has impaired hearing and speech, but his obliviously self-centred concerns don’t let him see that, even when he tries to uplift or protect his brother, the purposes of his actions are only ever to pursue his own agenda.

It’s not only Nick, but everyone he comes into contact with that Connie treats in this way. He uses each of them to achieve his own ends, without sparing a single thought for their perspectives, experiences, or needs. When he encounters a convicted drug dealer named Ray (Buddy Duress) and hears Ray’s story of his first night out after being released on parole and how a series of antics that involved a bottle of an LSD solution worth several thousand dollars landed him back in prison, Connie’s immediate and only reaction is not one of empathy with, interest in, or amusement for the story, but to plan to find the bottle of LSD, which Ray tells him he hid while running from the police, and to sell it for cash.

Granted, Connie is hatching whatever plans he can to make cash, because he needs it to bail his brother out of jail, where he is being held for helping Connie rob a bank of $65,000. An earlier attempt to secure the bail bond involved Connie’s emotionally unstable girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her elderly mother’s credit cards, and, when that didn’t work, the bondsman informed Connie that his brother is no longer being held in jail but in hospital, where he is being treated for wounds from a fight with another inmate. Connie diverts his efforts to try break Nick out of police custody in the hospital, which is how he meets Ray as well as Annie (Gladys Mathon), the elderly black woman whose help he elicits and resources he commandeers for his cause.

But the Safdie brothers don’t present Connie as a shallow and mere self-serving sociopath; he’s a richly conceived, emotionally and psychologically dense self-serving sociopath. Connie, in fact, reveals, in a conversation with Crystal, Annie’s 16-year-old granddaughter (Taliah Webster), that he thinks about his life and his actions in terms of a spiritual destiny (including an odd schema of reincarnation), as well as in terms of deeper metaphysical connections between him and the people he encounters; it’s only that he can’t connect to any reality outside of his own subjective perceptions or aims, and that he’s unaware of this inability. Connie also has a political view that he surprisingly slips into a tirade against Ray late in the film, in which he upholds the virtue of self-reliance, and rails against any dependence on the assistance of welfare; he shows the extremity and irrationality of his position by supposing that people who depend on welfare even go to prison just to live off the state support it offers.

This invective is foreshadowed by a few hints of Connie’s strange kind of right-wing thrust in his thinking; if the brief appearance of Pepe the frog in a drug den doesn’t tip you off, you may yet be aware of Connie’s consistent exploitation of his social and political privilege above the people of colour he encounters in Queens (which the Safdies show to be a particularly ethnically diverse place in New York City). He works to manipulate what he can out of Annie and Crystal, and, aided by Ray, brutally assaults the security guard (Barkhad Abdi) he runs into at an amusement park. These are not the stunts of any ideology or political principle, however; only the acting up of young white men who, observing a growing non-white reality around them, work to realise the opportunities for advancement in it for themselves, and to assert themselves in their own small milieu as part of the group that still holds the power over others. If Good Time were released last October, the electoral victory of an entitled, antic white Queens native would have been far less of a surprise.

Herman Eloff, in a review for Channel24, avers that “Good Time is a crude reminder that life sometimes sucks and that it’s not always sunshine and roses.” I counter that no moviegoer ever needs to be reminded of that fact — a lot of the time, it’s part of why we go to and enjoy movies in the first place — and that Good Time serves as far more than a mere reminder. It’s both a creation and a discovery, of volatile emotions and spontaneously combustible energies. A total production budget of $2 million may suggest a typically realist or neo-realist approach to a film’s subject, but what the Safdies do offer a reminder of is that a production budget is no marker of artistic value or even of aesthetic form or content; they adopt, without cynicism, an overarching irony in their filmmaking that places them apart from and above their subjects and depictions, but they take no less earnest a view of the action than any other indie director might. The brutality and grime of their settings and actions is shown with a hard frankness and clarity; and, though the mode of filming throughout is terrifically spontaneous and may feel like a documentarian’s methods of capturing action and emotion on the wing, each scene and many visual setups show assertive and imaginative forethought.

The sense given by the continual forward thrust of the plot (plummeted headlong by the insistent musical score, provided by Oneohtrix Point Never, and Ronald Bronstein’s frenetic editing) is that all the characters Connie encounters are merely or ruthlessly left behind as he rages onwards to reach his goals. This is, in fact, part of the Safdies’ design, and they make a point of beginning and ending their movie with scenes showing the emotional and psychological effects on the people who have been taken advantage of by a domestic power-grubbing anti-empath. The quietness of these scenes, particularly the very long take of Nick playing a game with a therapist over the closing credits, is no less energetic, and heightens the exhilaration of kinetic action elsewhere. Especially thrilling for me and my friends who watched the film with me were the overhead tracking shots of a car racing down a road, or of Connie running from police in a yard (filmed from Ray’s point of view, high up from an apartment balcony). The inventiveness and dynamism of these scenes, as well as the tumbling one-damn-thing-after-another successive plot points, brought to mind earlier hits set among the grimier bits of New York City, in particular GoodFellas and After Hours (Martin Scorsese is named first on the list of thanks in the credits). The Safdies allude to their cinematic forebears (and this clip reveals that there are more, thanks to Bronstein), yet their film is entirely their own, because of the force of emotion and weight of emotional insight they invest in it, as well as the obvious experiential knowledge of their setting and the goings-on that characterise its inhabitants that they possess. The title is an American prison term for time served in a prison sentence (and Buddy Duress’s own prison sentences uphold the film’s credentials); Josh and Benny Safdie refract it through the joy of cinematic creation into a multiplicitous and ironic reference to living with (and under the authority of) the exploitative and manipulative and unfairly, disproportionately powerful.

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