Twilight (2008-12) fans already know what Robert Pattinson can do: distant, enigmatic, lascivious, treacherous, with a smile that pleads for one last favour. Cronenberg saw all this. Many more will too. Pattinson’s lucky to have found the Safdie Brothers at this juncture: their new film, Good Time (2017), is an exhilarating turn towards genre, comparable to Kelly Reichardt’s surprising contributions to the western and crime thriller. Genre has expanded their canvas – geographically and thematically, making space for disability, race, drugs, gender and poverty to exist, unobtrusively, alongside each other.
The TV is always on, or about to be switched on. Background noise. Something to avoid nothing. It’s a fact of life, but it also keep things moving. The brothers – Nik (Ben Safdie) and Connie (Pattinson) – break out of therapy, rob a bank, get in prison brawls, break out of hospital, break into a theme park. Whenever there’s rest, the TV is turned on and action ensues. We’re in the home of a family who’ve offered Connie refuge. He watches TV with the granddaughter – a reality show in which a police officer tackles a mentally ill woman, and she lands on a knife. We hear the policeman say, ‘There’s nothing we can do about that. Just keep it in there.’ Connie flicks over. ‘I don’t wanna hear how they’re gonna justify that.’ But on the next channel his own convict portrait stares out. Connie kisses the girl to distract her, and the plot moves forward. After an evening with another man who’s been dodging jail and hospital, Connie’s face stares out again, prompting the man to ask how long he’ll get inside. Conflict. Just when the pace slows and you’ve entered a safety, the action swerves in a new direction.
This constant jolting saves the film. About halfway through, the combination of recklessness and composure that Connie exhibits starts to grate. Why won’t he just sit tight and wait? But everything moves so fast, you can’t afford to be still, and we start to believe that this restlessness is just a consequence of the frenzied life of crime. The plot digressions show that, although Connie thinks he has control, he’s just responding to events. And the city is an ongoing event, with traffic and security guards, and a million moving parts. Connie is just one of them. The Safdies show this beautifully the few times they zoom out and take a long view of him driving along the freeway, or running – like a figure in GTA – through the streets away from cops.
Nik’s social worker announces his importance by appearing in the first and penultimate scenes of the film. We’re sympathetic towards him in the opening. He seems to be giving Nik an IQ test, while eliciting information about a crime he’s committed. What’s sure is that he believes Nik has diminished responsibility. When Connie steals him away, we agree with the therapist’s sentiment: ‘shame on you!’ But he’s there at the end too, once the suspense is over, introducing Nik to a play scheme. As they walk down the corridor, he soothes his patient: ‘your brother did the right thing. You’re in the right place, and he’s in the right place.’ The natural order is the wayward youth in prison and the special-needs boy with all the other special-needs people. For all his faults, this is the kind of thinking that Pattinson’s character is trying to escape. They dream of living in a cabin and being able ‘to do whatever they want’. Connie is reprehensible in many ways. He’s manipulative and callous – and the people he hurts are mostly women. Nevertheless Connie’s ultimate motive – autonomy for himself and his brother – remains clear and, while it doesn’t redeem him, it certainly humanises him.