Like a gust of the sort of urban interior air we, the hungry and shaking, used to breathe before cell phones, age, rehab, kids, whatever, curbed our kamikaze uptown list-ditch jonesing searches; the sort of air that used to wheeze through our shallow uneasy, smoke-damaged lungs and coke drip-stripped throats, sabotaging any and all attempts to look nonplussed whilst led from the (relative) safety of the cracked sidewalk, into flickering foyers, lurching, cramped urine elevators, into a snaking coffin-width institutional-glazed hallways, by people we didn't know, people with terrible bridgework --all on the off chance of scoring something strong enough to take the shakes away. It's the sort of air we'd smell again, later, in church basement AA "workshops" the ones set in half-condemned storefronts that never quite not carry the smell of cigar butts, urine, heater coil-baked mildew, and smoky jackets. This, the stalest yet most urgent and memorable of junky air, is the sort of air that fills the sails of the Safdie brothers' kinetic chase scene thriller GOOD TIME (2017) and sets it zipping along for one dizzying, hold-on-to-your-meeting-book urban thrill ride. Damn it's good to remember the lost dingy smell of the chemically-destitute, without having literally smell it again. Can you feel the clammy sweat in your palms just from my vivid description? Can you taste the electric tang?
Occasionally saturated in the kind Day-Glo psychedelic eeriness that somehow heightens the gritty yet warmly soothing dream-like reality of Bronx streets in the dead of night, and of crowded holding tanks, closed amusement parks, public hospital corridors, and bank teller windows, rather than making them too cartoon-like. Amok on 'anything can happen at any time' energy, the molly-shiverin photography (35mm!) of Sean Price William sends it over. Chris Doyle himself could surely no better do than does "eye to the grindstone" William for street-deep GOOD TIME.
From the first moments of Oneohtrix Point Never's propulsive ambient score we feel we're seeing part of a wild new direction in cinema, albeit one familiar enough from past decades (but not this one), a hyperkinetic snapshot of logical but inexhaustible desperation, one bright little fucker's off-the-cuff quick thinking, the power he derives in his pursuits from being white and attractive enough women give his wild-eyed madness a pass through certain needle eyes. So catastrophic in its real time results is his effort that it perhaps makes a fine reflection on America's meddling in third world affairs, so insanely desperate to keep their kid brothers away from socialism that we all but destroy their economy. I'm sure that's not the Safdie's intentions but so what. It's the tale of sketchy quick-thinking newly-paroled ('good time' being shorthand for 'out on early parole for good behavior') Connie's (Robert Pattinson) whose afternoon-through-to-dawn nonstop hustling efforts to 'rescue' his mentally-handicapped brother (Benny Safdie himself) from the mental health system, and then from jail after a bungled bank robbery, start after a dazzling rave-style magenta dye bomb goes off in their escape Uber, the boys go racing down the streets of Queens as real-life passers-by (the Safdies didn't steal their shots, but sure made it look that way) gape at the psychedelic blur, and as Oneohtrix Point Never's propulsive retro synths and drowsy ambient pulse drops surge like a cranked up heartbeat guiding them like the current of the third rail guides the 4, 5, Q and R trains.
First winning critical notice with Heaven Knows What, the tale of a junky crustpunk and her quest to score and/or break up with or get back together with her sketchy junky boyfriend, the Safdies obviously know their milieu, the busy urban streets, dilapidated apartments of twitchy girlfriends always starting to crash on whatever was the last of her sketchy stash, and grandmothers you just met on the bus and now talked your way into something between a quiet home invasion and "just being there to use the phone." High-lowlights include a frazzled Jennifer Jason Leigh finding out--in the midst of a panicked Mamet-style shout at the credit card company--her mom canceled the credit card she stole from her purse before Leiigh could even use it. Leigh's escalating tantrum-sub-junky desperation is masterful - she's trying to play her mom and then the credit card company as assiduously as Connie's playing her, but she's too emotional, too panicked. Also sublimely vivid: the testosterone-packed precinct holding cell, busy late night public hospital corridors, the kind of place where there are so many people on so many different shift schedules, and with no windows and no closing time, the sleep schedule so disrupted that rather than be awake and then asleep at a certain hour, everyone is half and half all the time; if you know where you're going, you can go almost anywhere; arcades where kids drop acid and play video games; and closed amusement parks, it's got it all, even a momentary pause here and there for some random termite humanity, or a barking pit bull.
This is a certain strata of outer borough living a lot of us 'aging hipster' New Yorkers don't really get to know anymore, not since the advent of cell phones made drug buying a "we come to you" thing, not a "let's take a subway up to the shadiest section of the Bronx and see if that guy who knows that guy is still there' kind of thing, the sort born of wearying teenage sobriety. And as rents rise, the lower world dregs are continually pushed farther and farther uptown, and marijuana more and more decriminalized, whole generations of will never know the way these sorts of hustlers sweep you up in their drama so fast that what started as you buying a dime bag and getting the hell back to your friends downtown winds up in you putting up your car up as bail for someone you barely know after running from the police through a neighborhood you don't recognize, with a head full of angel dust you didn't know you'd smoked, and taking another of your dealer's friends to a hospital ER waiting room, hoping to get him admitted before the cops show up and you have to run all over again, and you're too young and/or naive and/or nice and/or stoned to figure out how to make your goodbyes and extricate you from this hustler's Jenga hodge podge of quick fixes before it topples down into handcuffs or a bullet. It's a thing that happens to us all, once. If we're smart, we soak the lesson up good and never even visit that same subway stop again, even if the "sticks" (Xanax) and Oxy seems to flow on tap.
On the other hand it's far more entertaining than most such evenings, more riveting and propulsive, druggy and psychedelic while being utterly real (most scenes shot on the fly in real locations with passers-by who just happened to be in the shot) without the consequences or interminable length or waking up with your wallet and TV gone. It's a headlong zig-zag firefly race into the abyss that shows the devastating dry wit and talent for fly-on-the-wall naturalism the Safdies are second to none, locked in on a street-level substrata that few genuine artists quite penetrate deep enough to feel anything other than a pose. Christ, who would want to go this deep? Only real artists who, unlike so many others, actually may have a flag to plant.
The big psychedelic payoff is what puts this movie into the pantheon, including a wild inherently disturbing scene that trades on one's familiarity with the drug so in question. I.e. if you've ever done liquid or blotter LSD ever, you know that pouring a a goodly third or fourth of a full Sprite bottle of pure acid down some poor security guard's throat to render him incapacitated is a Black Mirror kind of evil, the soul trapped for all eternity screaming, even long after they finally come down. If you don't even know you got there or what just happened, you basically ensure they never come back, jumping through fifth story windows to stop the insane visions, even if they pump your IV full of enough Ativan to drop a mating season moose.
Hmmmm - moose-dropping Ativan IV - almost sounds worth it but no matter how much you may love it, if you know its force, the strength of a single drop to send grown men screaming into the ER begging for a 'stick' to ease the demonic rainstorm tearing their flesh and mind apart, then that Sprite bottle reverberates like a the mouth of Hell itself. Suddenly we look around at the glowing, surreal landscape - both beautiful amniotic, terrible and we are totally unmoored. We've let crazy Connie warp our world around him.
In the end though there are four elements that make Good Time work so indelibly well, the first is Pattinson, proving once again he's been criminally underrated as an actor (see this the same night as Cosmopolis and see what I mean). As he did in 2014's The Rover, he knows how to convey the half-strutting/half-defensive body language of a far too tightly-strung marionette hoodrat, but this is a whole new hood for him - you can tell he's been doing research hanging out with ex-cons and visiting prisons as this is leagues away from the usual Hollywood "street"kid. You can see it in the shots below - the wild animal aggression and just fucked-up tiredness of his hustler - the way everything from coming onto older girlfriend Leigh, to scaring people into line his way of thinking - are all just means to an end, something he's so convinced is 'love' for his brother he never questions it even as it turns everyone's life he runs across inside-out, brother included. He doesn't even realize how animal crazy his eyes look when peeking up from the bushes to clock the five-oh. He'd at least be nominated for something for it, but he's too good and too young and famous to be noticed. He'll have to get lionized in France first, like his ex, dear Kristen.
Dude's as termite as it gets. So's the film. It begs all sorts of indulgences for lack of higher purpose but then, as the end sinks in and you go about your business, the deeper meanings of all that's gone by in such a rush sinks deep into you. This is the kind of film that manages to do both, be a dirty vivid urgent urban race through acid-drenched nightmare grandeur, but then a truly great, resonant film at the same time. It lingers in the mind until its genius closes like a velvet trap around your cortices, illuminating a strange redemptive figure eight over the holy cross of anonymous acts of selfless kindness. You never know what form it will settle on while you're following crazy Connie through the dead of night system, but you know it's going somewhere new. Isn't that, in the end, why you never made a quick excuse and ran off when dragged into your dealer's scabby shenanigans deeper and deeper? You just couldn't go back to the normal schedule without finding out how deep the grimy rabbit hole goes now while you have a grimy rabbit to follow.
1. see also: Lana Turner and the Unscrupulous Doser - my review of The Big Cube - for more on this scary subject)