“[He] wore a leering grin like one of those cat demons in a Goya drawing that seem without motivation. Black eyes. Black Pacino eyes.” — Sam Shepard, The One Inside
Using Robert Pattinson as a metatextual star — look at him, look at him do what he’s never done before in places he’s never been! — with some of the verve of Hitchcock but none of the subjective audience identification, the Safdie brothers’ Good Time is not, as some might consider it, a reversal of its name, a deep post-midnight dive into a hellscape of crime and desperation. No, it counts on the idea of pleasure to its core: pleasure of the image of Pattinson sucking you in from his quasi Ford-Wayne zoom introduction, from the intensity of his walk, his charisma his only guide as (as Connie) he filters through people’s personalities and finds the point he can pull on to get a favour. Pleasures also of seeing neon lights sweep across actors’ faces, their calm evasion of police types and readiness to carom through settings usually thought to be antithetical to pleasure: townhomes that have gathered stuff for all their lifespan, circa ‘86 sedans waxless for at least a decade, and so on.
All this isn’t to serve, as in the set dressing of a prestige picture set in the “city,” an idea of detail-driven authenticity — the Safdies, who collaborate across the roles of writing, editing, and directing, privilege immersion and motion. In other words, at a moment when we can document the places surrounding us more easily than ever, movies have doubled down on hyper-lux-unreality, taking place in hushed gardens, fantasy battlefields, high-ceilinged dining halls, immaculate skyscrapers, and outer space. By drawing their scope as a New York hopscotch of hallways, strip-malls, hospital waiting rooms, and public transit, the Safdies set the world up as one to be defamiliarized — its building blocks a star who has to book it across city blocks and find transportation to a sometime-friend’s mother’s apartment.
This uncanny tendency is perhaps most clear in the way Daniel Lopatin’s score is used. The most substantial pleasure in the film, Lopatin, known as Oneohtrix Point Never, has had tracks show up in films by Sofia Coppola and, as a live performance, Koji Morimoto. Here his arpeggiated synths and hauntology-informed choral swaths wrap around scenes entirely. Like the opening of the Safdies’ previous work, Heaven Knows What, which stretched an Isao Tomita track over its opening credits, an extended take that staggered after a treatment centre’s staff struggling to contain a post-suicide attempt patient, the music itself is seductive, its layering over the image produces tension, and the film flashes by without further comment.
Putting a name to this direction, the Safdies, appearing on Charlie Rose, cited Manny Farber’s widely known essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art.” According to them, they’ve tried to make the latter, a film that “people can consume … these termites will kind of get inside of them and kind of force their way into your psyche after the movie and make you ask questions: why did this happen, why did that happen?” While this interpretation might have worked to motivate the film, it has hardly any relation to Farber’s essay, and more with the idea that there is some moral virtuousness to be found in the cynicism of noir. Farber’s essay, for the uninitiated, is a sprawling consideration of self-important Masterpieces (across several mediums) and how they are a poor metric for considering artistic development. “The common quality or defect which unites apparently divergent artists (like Antonioni, Truffaut, Richardson),” he writes, “is fear, a fear of the potential life, rudeness, and outrageousness of a film.”
“Termite Art,” on the other hand, is the work of an artist with zero fear of failure or of contamination from working in disreputable genres, conditions, categories of any kind. Farber doesn’t exactly identify many examples of these aside from “Laurel and Hardy … [and] the first half of The Big Sleep,” but the point is that there is more excitement when looking at the work of someone truly testing their own boundaries and writing a novel or making a film every year, rather than waiting for the perfect conditions to tell a deeply personal (literally personal) story. The Safdies probably can’t make that latter type of film based on the trajectory they have set for themselves (noir, almost a century later, is no longer disreputable), but Farber wasn’t prescribing The Method that must be followed for making art — he was describing a handful of movies he had recently seen.
With regards to noir, the Safdies have made an entertaining movie, and one that also might be a more effectively unsettling study of violence and emotional aggression than, say, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. It’s hard to say — the idea of implanting subtext for an audience to unpack always presumes an audience that needs things packaged a certain way; here, that means packaged in the way a quasi-affordable new apartment conceals shoddy reno, a slapdash paint-job, screaming in the middle of the night. At its best, Good Time, in its floating eye-of-god photography, features the best moments of sweaty bodies packed in a small car since Anthony Mann’s Side Street. Then again, there are moments of cascading confrontations (Pattison bargains with a bail bondsman; the bondsman calls a prison; Pattison’s partner (Jennifer Jason Leigh) calls her mom; the bondsman responds to the partner, then calls another number; Pattinson argues with his partner; the partner’s plastic calls the bank) that seem culled from the editing suite of David O. Russell.
But Pattinson remains the key, the self-appointed hero who believes he can transcend and embrace his family at the same time. Perhaps some alchemy happened with Catherine Hardwicke on the first Twilight: the casting, the right amount of direction — the amount that lets a performer feel comfortable playing their own persona film to film. Like Kristen Stewart, Pattinson belongs to the school of under-selling lines, while keeping the tension and desire of a scene alive in one’s eyes and body language. It isn’t a true star-boosting performance because Pattison is ultimately in service to the film rather than the other way around, but Good Time is at least self-aware and driven in a way few films in any year ever are. It’s a post-70s Badlands séance, minus any exposition set-up or voiceover poetics. Instead, a car slinks away from police lights and a digital soundtrack drums into the night.