“Good Time,” playing in the Keys, rated R, one hour and 40 minutes.
In sync with the pace of their latest feature, “Good Time,” things are moving fast for Josh and Ben Safdie.
At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, their mad sprint of a crime thriller, starring Robert Pattinson as a small-time hood scrambling one step ahead of the law after a bank robbery, enjoyed a warm reception (not without controversy; see below). The prestigious distributor A24, backers of last year’s Academy Award-winning gem “Moonlight,” is handling “Good Time” as well as the Safdie brothers’ next film, “Uncut Gems,” based on their father’s experiences in midtown Manhattan’s diamond district. That one is set to star Jonah Hill with Martin Scorsese aboard as executive producer.
“Since we were kids, basically,” Josh says over coffee and fruit at a downtown restaurant, answering the question of how long he’s been directing his brother. In “Good Time,” which they co-directed, Ben plays the brother of the Pattinson character, pushed into a temporary life of crime by his older sibling. Ben’s character, Nick, lies somewhere on the autism spectrum, though his diagnosis never comes up in the film itself. Ben first developed a prototype for the character in 2010 in a project, developed by Ronald Bronstein, about a court-appointed psychiatric group; Ben, then known as Benny, played one of the participants.
The Safdies tell me they interviewed several people with disabilities to play Pattinson’s brother, but Ben thought he could do it, and honorably. And he did; it’s a thoroughly inhabited, subtly detailed performance.
After seeing the Safdies’ previous feature, “Heaven Knows What,” “Twilight” heartthrob Pattinson called the Safdies more or less out of the blue. He wanted to work with them on a project that might allow him to disappear into a role. He wasn’t right for anything in “Uncut Gems,” but as Josh tells it: “I said I wanted to do a genre movie, but a realistic one, something about how an ex-con functions in society. That was all I had.” It was enough for Pattinson to find out where it might lead.
Pattinson isn’t the only “real” actor in “Good Time,” but all the Safdies’ work is distinguished by what Josh calls “street casting” — real people working very close to the bone. The challenge, he says, was this: “How do we create the illusion that we street-cast this guy?”
While Pattinson was in the Colombian jungle filming “The Lost City of Z,” he received reams of character history and background on the “Good Time” protagonist, Constantine “Connie” Nikas. Pattinson then corresponded with Ben long-distance, in character, as the brothers they’d soon be playing on camera.
When he got to New York, Pattinson dove into three full months of unconventional, on-the-ground rehearsal. With the Safdies he visited penal system facilities and friends of the brothers, from Yonkers on down. Pattinson recorded various New Yorkers to help him find the vocal characterization and the dialect. He and Ben worked at a car wash, and Josh filmed it, ostensibly as a camera test for the characters, but also as a test run for how the fictional Nikas brothers’ relationship might play out, moment to moment, on screen.
Pattinson didn’t get paid for those months. “That’s the beauty of it,” Josh says. “His drive was not a commercial one.”
The Safdies took 27 days for principal photography. They didn’t have an ending; a prison location they needed for the one Josh wrote with co-screenwriter Bronstein fell apart. But they didn’t love that ending anyway. They wrote a new one, effective and affecting, and also realized they’d benefit from resurrecting a character (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) that dropped out of the movie after an earlier draft.
Throughout the shooting and editing, the Safdies strove for their preferred brand of meticulous artlessness. Eric Roberts, nobody’s idea of a low-key actor, originally played the bail bondsman Pattinson visits to secure $10,000 to get his brother out of the lockup. It wasn’t quite working as filmed.
Josh: “The problem is, I can’t stand exposition. I believe the audience is smarter than that; they don’t need to be spoon-fed information. No offense to Eric, but I don’t think the scene could’ve handled exposition plus artifice.” The part was reassigned to real-life bail bondsman Eric Paykert, and the scene was shot in Paykert’s office, with Paykert’s real wife and his real co-worker, everybody talking over each other. The result, Josh believes, “is just so much more alive.”
Some critics have leveled charges of racism at “Good Time,” for the ways Pattinson’s Connie, perpetually improvising his next move, exploits two key black characters: the immigrant security guard played by “Captain Phillips” Oscar nominee Barkhad Abdi and the teenager played by Taliah Webster (a true find).
“I think that’s a surface-level interpretation of the movie,” Josh says of the racism charges. “We wanted to make a piece of pulp; we wanted to make a movie that felt dangerous, because it’s a reflection of society. I don’t think people of color are vilified in any way in this movie. But they suffer at the hands of white people. They’re victimized, not vilified.”
Ben picks up the thread: “Connie’s taking advantage from a racial perspective, once the cops show up (in the Adventureland amusement park sequence, one of the most disturbing in the movie). We’re in no way saying this is a good thing. The audience is supposed to think: Wait. What just happened?” It’s a question the Safdies have provoked with their itchy, vital portraits in human survival from the beginning.