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Survival in the Underbelly

Academy Art U News sat down with directors Ben and Josh Safdie and actor Robert Pattinson to discuss their latest film, Good Time

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Robert Pattinson and Benny Safdie. Photo courtesy of A24.

In new movie Good Time, Constantine “Connie” Nikas occupies an underbelly of New York City where the reward always outweighs the risk. There’s no such thing as hindsight for the Queens thoroughbred, and when a get-rich-quick scheme goes awry, Connie (played by Robert Pattinson) must break his developmentally-disabled brother Nick out of jail by maneuvering through a night of petty crimes involving the borough’s forgotten – and sometimes seedy – characters.

The film thrusts into overdrive as Connie’s desperation to save Nick (played by Ben Safdie, who directed the film with his brother Josh) turns into short-sighted efforts. The movie opens with Pattinson’s character disrupting his brother’s counseling session so Nick can help Connie rob a bank. The brothers have just about escaped when tear gas erupts from their money bag and they have to make a mad dash to change their clothes and lose the cops on their tail. Connie manages to slither away, while Nick is captured and thrown into Rikers Island.  

Good Time is the Safdies’ fifth entry into their New-York-on-the-fringes film anthology, alongside previous works such as Heaven Knows What (which follows a real-life street kid as she searches for love and her next fix) and Daddy Longlegs (a story about a wayward dad with less than adequate parenting instincts). The Safdies are heavy-handed on atmosphere to develop characters in their early films, using day-in-the-life framing and relying on routines and habits to reveal their characters’ true nature.

With Good Time, it was about putting the protagonist’s back against the wall. The sense of urgency forces a person to make hard choices in small windows of time, in turn revealing not just priority, but also perspective. In Connie’s world, what is real and what he perceives to be true are not mutually exclusive.

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Robert Pattinson. Photo courtesy of A24.

“Connie’s a superhero in the sense that he can see about 25 seconds ahead into the future,” laughed Pattinson during the movie’s press stop in San Francisco. “He can see about 45 minutes into the future, but only in small increments.”

Ben chimes in: “And with no past. Or memory.”  

In actuality, Connie’s past is steeped in real low-end criminal experiences. As the sole non-New Yorker on set, Pattinson was able to tap into Connie through extensive biography written especially for him, partially inspired by Buddy Duress’ (who plays Ray, a fellow criminal) own prison journal kept at Josh’s behest. Written in a “stream-of-consciousness kind of way”, Josh and co-writer Ronald Bronstein use Connie’s story to paint a portrait of America at its most exploitative.

“[We] basically created the character out of nauseam and the deep seeds of inspiration come from studying the prison ethos in America and the current landscape of what’s happening in America with isolated people, white privilege, women being taken advantage of, etc.,” Josh explained.

Within Good Time’s 100-minute run time, Connie’s character pinballs between playing the hero and the villain. Throughout the movie’s turn of events, the Safdies toy with several ideas of duality: Reactive versus proactive; truth versus reality; intent versus impact. But strip away all sense of theme and concept, the narrative whittles down to Connie wanting to rescue Nick from one institution, only to have him thrust into another one more dire.

“His idea of trying to help Nick is noble,” Josh continued. “He thinks that (the institution trying to indoctrinate Nick) is wrong because they think they change the mind from the outside; Connie thinks the only way you can change somebody is through experience. The idea is good, but the execution is off. You don’t bring a developmentally disabled guy to rob a bank with you, that’s just not a good idea.”

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Benny Safdie and Robert Pattinson. Photo courtesy of A24.

Connie’s fuse on good ideas runs short and interactions with Good Time’s other players lends his decisions to be questionable at best and manipulative at worst. It’s almost frightening how good he is at spinning the truth or seeking out all-too-generous strangers who are open to lending him a hand. Even as Connie lets his guard down and reveals his gentler side – when he shares the screen with Crystal, played by 16-year-old Taliah Webster – the effort is brief. Whether the short bouts of friendship were genuine or not, all is tainted once he cons the teenager into handing him the keys to her grandmother’s car.

Crystal and a few other characters in the film are part of the Safdie brothers’ camp of ‘sudden stars’, or regular folks cast from the streets of New York City. Josh said that casting this way injected a sense of authenticity into the movies, saying ‘sudden stars’ such as Webster and her grandmother Annie (played by Gladys Mathon) weren’t just acting as their respective characters, but in effect, they were being the character: “They have a kind of power that makes you want to find out more.”

Good Time (and the other Safdie films like it) offers a unique window into life in the margins through its characters. Defining any one character as good or bad is a tricky feat; with every action, there is a good and bad reaction. The Nikas brothers, their neighbors, cohorts and associates alike all endure a tough reality to chew on, and the nuggets shown in Good Time makes the Safdies’ first piece of pulp fiction a worthy nod toward the genre’s classic film traditions while also triggering bigger ideas of class and American institutions through the movie’s minutiae.

The defining lines are constantly shifting and blurring in Connie’s world where the stakes are different each night, but the goal remains the same: To survive.

Good Time is now playing in San Francisco.