Upon exiting a press screening of Good Time, which opens in Chicago tomorrow, I was ready to recommend the film. The movie had shaken me, commanding my attention with a brilliant interplay of camerawork, editing, music, and performance. I had been under its spell as I watched it, and I left it in that heightened state that you achieve by engaging with worthwhile art.
A few days later, I read some comments about Good Time by critic Glenn Kenny and A.O. Scott’s review of the film in the New York Times. Kenny and Scott, both critics I admire, had been appalled by Good Time, declaring the film’s racial politics to be abhorrent. Thinking back over the movie, I realized they were right; moreover I realized that the film’s very premise is offensive. Good Time tells the story of a New York criminal (Robert Pattinson) who coerces his intellectually disabled brother (Benny Safdie, who also directed the film with his brother Josh) into helping him rob a bank, then spends a long night trying to raise the brother’s bail money after he gets arrested. One could say that Pattinson’s desperate search for cash—which comes to involve conning nearly everyone he meets—reflects a mad, instinctive love for his brother. But if he really loved Safdie, why would he make him commit a crime in the first place, especially since the brother lacks the intellectual capacity to grasp the ramifications of his actions?
More importantly, how was I so blind to all this when I watched Good Time? I have to blame the film’s aesthetic. The Safdie brothers plunge into the seedy milieu with such imagination and energy that the results are never less than hypnotic. Shooting in handheld close-up and employing vibrant sound design that always suggests looming chaos just outside the frame, the Safdies invoke a heightened reality where one must be constantly alert for details. At the same time, the eerie electronic score by Oneohtrix Point Never gives the film a vague air of science fiction. The environments, no matter how banal, are rendered unfamiliar, adding to one’s curiosity about what’s going on. And on top of this, the characters are always on the move, trying to escape somebody or rush through a con. You barely have time to question what’s happening.
I realize now I made a mistake not to question the film, because the story only grows more repulsive as it goes along. After Safdie’s character gets beaten up in prison, he’s transported to a hospital. Pattinson decides to bust his brother out from there, and so he poses as a security guard and sneaks into a room where he believes his brother, his head wrapped in bandages, is being treated. Pattinson gets Safdie out of the hospital and onto a bus. They get off in a random neighborhood, then Pattinson cons his way into the home of a Jamaican woman and her teenage granddaughter, where he plans to wait out the police search for the night. He ends up seducing the granddaughter—but under duress, because he needs to distract her from a TV news broadcast about his bank robbery. In this scene of near statutory rape, the Safdies encourage a certain admiration for Pattinson’s cunning rather than a disgust with his amorality.
Before Pattinson can have sex with the girl, the man he’d believed was his brother wakes up, takes off the bandages, and reveals himself to be someone else. A heated confrontation ensues, but the stranger (another young scumbag like Pattinson) manages to strike a deal. Some friends of the stranger hid a soda bottle filled with LSD at a local amusement park earlier that day; he and Pattinson will go recover the bottle, sell the contents, and split the money, which Pattinson can put toward his brother’s bail. They go to the amusement park, granddaughter in tow, and break into the ride where the soda bottle was hidden. The two young men get stopped by a security guard, an African emigre (played by Barkhad Abdi of Captain Phillips). Pattinson beats the guard to a pulp, steals his uniform, then pours the LSD-Sprite mixture down the guard’s throat so that he’ll be intoxicated when authorities (whom the guard has summoned) arrive. The cops quickly show up, and the disguised Pattinson (beard shaved, hair dyed bottle blond) talks his way out of a police inquiry while the granddaughter gets arrested for being near the scene of a crime.
The victims of Pattinson’s criminal behavior aren’t exclusively black—he’s content to exploit anyone and everyone—but that the fact that so many are should raise concern. Scott frames the issue eloquently when he writes:
This pattern does not seem accidental. The question is what it means—what degree of self-consciousness or critical distance Good Time brings to its depiction of bottom-of-the-barrel white privilege. You could infer a satirical dimension if you wanted to, or even a righteous indictment of what a lowlife can get away with if he has Mr. Pattinson’s complexion. Or you could look at the film’s riot of racial signifiers—the musical and pop-cultural references as well as the demographics of the setting—as a form of trolling, a coy, self-disavowing provocation.
In other words, to what end are the Safdies provoking their audience? What do they intend for us to take away from the film about criminal behavior or the milieu these lower-class criminals inhabit? That Pattinson is so good at scamming any person he encounters suggests tears in our social fabric—holes where amoral, ratlike individuals like him can get through. But in its intense focus on the protagonist, the film feels too enraptured with his actions to criticize them. The brilliant aesthetic of Good Time conveys the adrenaline rush Pattinson experiences as he races from one scam to another, the thrill he attains from living outside the law. While I don’t believe that art must provide its audience with a moral compass, I do believe that a deliberately amoral perspective ought to guide audiences to greater insight than those Good Time provides.