Rules in screenwriting and film making exist for a reason, and breaking them usually creates a mess of a movie. Knowing exactly how and when to break these rules, though, can occasionally make for a classic. Memento and The Sweet Hereafter break the rules of time, telling the story in non-chronological fashion, and these two are remembered as classics and started a trend which film makers are still trying to mimic. Man With a Movie Camera and Koyaanisqatsi will live on for a very long time due to the fact that they don’t even have a plot and just attempt to observe the real world. Dogville forgoes having a set whatsoever and From Dusk ‘Til Dawn throws the preconceptions of genre out the window. I mention all these because Good Time is another rule breaking film, but it’s unlike any other that make the attempt in that it is neither a mess nor a movie that is destined to be talked about in film classes for years to come, but merely a film that you look at as an interesting idea that worked relatively well.
That unwritten rule which Good Time breaks is that a story needs to have a mapped out plot and subplots with clear high points and breaks according to a long accepted structure. Good Time‘s story is less structured and more the feeling of being dragged along by strangers through a place you’re unfamiliar with to a destination you don’t know. The story is one of two brothers, Connie Nikas played by Robert Pattinson and Nick Nikas played by Benny Safdie who also wrote and directed Good Time. The story starts when Connie decides he is going to rob a bank dragging Nick, who is intellectually disabled, along. Connie gets away with the robbery, but Nick is captured by the police and the money stolen is lost. The majority of Good Time takes place over one night in which Connie tries to get his brother out of jail using whatever means are available to him as the night progresses.
Good Time never focuses on any one part of the story arc for very much time, and once a specific incident is finished from Connie’s perspective, that incident and everything it involved is left behind never to be seen nor spoken of again. This means that the fate of important characters are left up in the air, objects that were once important are forgotten about, and central ideas are discarded. It makes for a story which feels more like a panicked night of grasping at straws than a coherent plot, and I’m sure that is exactly what the film makers were trying for.
Adding to the disorientation is the camera work. Normally I consider it a knock against a film, particularly an action film, when the director of cinematography chooses to use close-up shaky camera techniques as a means of disorienting the audience and thereby masking the fact that the stunt work doesn’t look good or some other flaw in the creation of the film’s action visuals. Here, the grainy shaky hand held camera is very much a feature not a bug as it accentuates the disoriented mix of dream and reality which the Safdie brothers are trying for. It’s certainly not a law being broken, as this style of camera work is still in regular usage even if it is in disfavor by most critics, but this cinematic technique is still a gutsy move as it is going out of style and is used not just to hide lack of talent or budget but to give the entire film an emotional core. In my opinion, it works.
Robert Pattinson’s performance as Connie is the final make-or-break element of the film, and ultimately what Good Time‘s success hinges on, and he certainly pulls it off. He manages to make Connie a realistic person and a relatable one. We may not approve of his criminal lifestyle, but we can definitely see that underneath it all is a confused man who loves his brother above everything. Pattinson delivers a character that is at once tough and vulnerable, intelligent and charismatic, yet also willfully ignorant and selfish, and it all works to make a truly three dimensional human being. With Good Time, Pattinson shows there is a lot more to him than he was able to show off in the Twilight series.
Final verdict: Good Time is an unusual film in that it takes a lot of chances, all of those chances work, yet it still doesn’t manage to elevate itself above the level of an interesting study. Perhaps it’s its subject matter, crime movies are hardly original, perhaps it’s its hyper-realism, we have all had nights like the one focused on in this film, but the circumstances are too foreign to really relate to, but Good Time is a movie that is more fascinating than entertaining. The Safdie brothers have given us a movie that film scholars will truly appreciate, but that general audiences will most likely find dull and disjointed. If you are the type who goes to a film largely for intellectual reasons, then I recommend Good Time, but most others won’t get a great deal out of Good Time other than a feeling of “what the hell did I just watch?”.