Premier purveyors of New York City sleaze, the Safdie brothers capture the pulsing hyperactivity and cutthroat realities of the city’s criminal circuit like no other filmmakers of their generation.
Tense, raw, and super-charged by the dynamics of brutality and exploitation that underline their characters’ every movement and transaction, their recent films are uniquely modern thrillers with more on the mind than the visceral propulsion their pacing might indicate.
Across their narrative features, all co-written and co-edited by Ronald Bronstein, Josh and Benny Safdie have worked to hone an authentic, abrasive vision of New York and its hustlers.
Shot in urgent, jittering close-ups and populated by a mixture of professional and nonprofessional actors, their movies close the distance between cinematic and documentary practices, staging their dispatches from the underground in intense, immersive bursts that feel stolen off the street. Uncut Gems, which set Adam Sandler up to give one of his best performances, represents the fullest expression of the Safdies’ chaotic yet grounded sensibility. It was also a north star of sorts for the Safdies, given that the pair had grown up enmeshed with (then enamored of) the New York diamond district, where their father was once a runner and salesman.
But before realizing that dream project, the Safdies made Good Time, which is streaming on Netflix until February 19. An equally scuzzy crime-thriller, it was conceived when Robert Pattinson came across a still from the brothers’ previous feature, addiction melodrama Heaven Knows What, and approached them about making something. With Twilight stardom nipping at his heels, he’d been searching for a character he could disappear into, and the Safdies’ overstimulated, street-level realism spoke to him.
In response, the Safdies delivered Connie Nikas. Fatally hubristic but quick-thinking and darkly seductive, he’s introduced as a destructive force, barging into a therapy session where his mentally disabled brother Nick (Benny Safdie) is starting to open up about a violent incident involving his grandmother. Pulling Nick out over his psychologist’s objections, Connie cajoles Nick with professions of brotherly love, then drags him along on a bank robbery.
In the brief but pulse-pounding sequence that follows, Connie and Nick don rubber masks that approximate the faces of Black men, as well as hoodies and reflective vests that anonymize them as construction workers. Connie muscles his way through the heist, as Nick stands uneasily by him as a silent accomplice. But their getaway is a mess. A dye-pack, smuggled into their loot by the teller, explodes and stains the brothers red, causing their driver to veer into a row of parked cars.
In the ensuing foot chase, Nick crashes through glass and is apprehended. Connie, who’s sprinted past his brother, evades capture but resolves to rescue Nick before he vanishes into the criminal justice system. So begins a bold, frantic, and entirely improvised effort by Connie to skirt the consequences of his actions, as he forcefully manipulates everyone in his path, including a older woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a naïve teenager (Taliah Lennice Webster), and a parolee (Buddy Duress).
The Safdies direct all of this breathlessly, and Sean Price Williams’ vivid, intimate cinematography adds to the film’s mastery of mood and emotional rhythm while enhancing its sense of immediacy. Connie measures his life in seconds and steps, and the immersive thrill of Pattinson’s performance is in how he disappears inside this suave, self-aggrandizing schemer so fully that we can never untangle — only observe, wide-eyed — the chaotic jumble of impulses that drive his decision-making.
Of course, it’s crucial to the Safdies’ design that it can be undeniably entertaining and often darkly funny to see Connie in action. For all his talk and oil-slick operating, the molten audacity of his constant hustle keeps threatening to blow back in his face. Pattinson’s such a naturally charismatic performer that instead of suppressing that side of their star, the Safdies have him channel it toward slimier ends.
What makes Good Time such an enthralling watch is precisely this core magnetism with which the Safdies and Pattinson have realized Connie. As he swaggers through dire scenario after scenario, Connie’s force of ego seems only to swell, and his furious presence is no small part the secret to his charm. The guy’s propensity for grift is a worsening addiction, but it’s fueled by the adrenaline rush of his continued ability to evade consequences, a rush that’s heightened and made even more intoxicating by the filmmaking’s high-voltage style.
Getting away with it is a badge of pride for Connie, but Good Time also depicts it as a manifestation of his privilege. Avoiding didactics, the Safdies depict the social dynamics that work in Connie’s favor throughout his night on the run. Not a mastermind, Connie succeeds first by badgering then bludgeoning, but his power is persuasion. He holds open doors with a quick smile and an ingratiating air pitched halfway between an ask and an apology.
Connie’s whiteness is integral to this; Good Time finds him chattering his way past police as often as bystanders. When his spree leads to the Adventureland theme park and he knocks out the security guard (Captain Phillips’ Barkhad Abdi), LSD is poured down the man’s throat, then Connie steals his clothes; he knows that when the police gets there they won’t spare a second thought to the sight of an incoherent, disheveled Black man.
That Good Time smuggles in its critique without straying from Connie’s side or relinquishing its on-the-fly appearance is a testament to how fully the Safdies have considered the sociopolitical dimensions of their crime odyssey, how effectively their style grounds it in time and place, and how beautifully its actors locate raw, honest, and sometimes ugly truths about their characters.
It’s difficult to understate Good Time’s importance to Pattinson’s career. By the time he came together with the Safdies, Pattinson had demonstrated his dramatic chops as a leading man outside of Twilight, with an internalized performance in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis and a twitchier turn in David Michôd’s The Rover. But he hadn’t yet been redefined to the masses as a character actor, harboring more dramatic depth than heartthrob status had let him express.
Critically acclaimed off its Cannes premiere, distributed by indie tastemakers A24, and buoyed in subsequent months by glowing word-of-mouth, Good Time did the trick. His work is the engine that keeps the film’s wheels spinning, throwing off enough sparks along the way to illuminate Connie’s frenzied perspective: One in which the world’s still his to win, and all the scuzz feels just sublime.
Good Time is streaming on Netflix until February 19.