2018 Film Essays

Parody of Power: Benny and Josh Safdie’s ‘Good Time’

When I saw Good Time, I was genuinely awe-struck by the film and its creators, Benny and Josh Safdie. In an age when many films are reboots, sequels or a regurgitation of what’s trending on Twitter, the Safdie brothers provide a fresh narrative, taking a unique look at power and manipulation. Good Time explores these concepts through a social misfit, Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson). If he were to employ his intellect and street smarts to honest efforts, he could probably achieve a comfortably stable life. Instead, he appears to have a large chip on his shoulder, looking to make a big, quick score to elevate himself above his humble street existence. Connie’s presumed saving grace is his protective concern for his mentally challenged brother, Nick (Benny Safdie). Unfortunately, Connie’s efforts are as flawed as the rest of his life choices, and his attempts to seize control invariably endangers Nick and others. The Safdie brothers employ sharp writing and tight visual narrative camerawork to deliver a dark comedy with a thought-provoking social commentary.

At the onset of Good Time, the Safdies introduce the lead characters’ world. Connie’s take-charge personality is on display when he bursts into Nick’s counseling session. He chastises the therapist, Peter, for making Nick cry. Connie’s presence quickly overpowers the room, leaving Peter little choice but to yield to his force. Connie has no use for feelings, and this scene highlights his contention that the doctors have no idea what they are doing, and that he alone knows what is best for Nick. Using erratic camera work, specifically dutch angles and fast cuts, the Safdie brothers create a sense of instability in the midst of Connie’s assertive confrontation of the therapist. In contrast to his words and actions, the cinematography reveals that Connie is anything but in control.

Powerful mise-en-scène imagery further discloses the false presumption of power, complementing the narrative. Connie waits for new hair bleach to take effect as he talks with his girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) on the phone, trying to convince her to pick him up, telling lie after lie. In the foreground of the shot is Connie‘s tattoo, which reads “POWER.” It is clearly visible in juxtaposition to the static white snow of the television set. His power is superficial, no more deeply imbedded within his inner being than the inked word on his back. Only by snowing person after person does he gain any fleeting control at all.

At the core of Connie’s pursuit of power and self-preservation are his masterful manipulation skills. He coerces Nick into being his accomplice in a bank heist. He convinces Corey to use her mom’s credit card to post bail for Nick. At the hospital, Connie cons an orderly in the cafeteria to obtain the floor number of his brother’s room. When escaping from the hospital after mistaking a convict, Ray (Buddy Duress), for Nick, Connie convinces a bus driver that they belong on the dispatcher’s schedule. To secure a getaway car, Connie seduces Crystal (Taliah Webster), a teenager who lives where he and Ray temporarily hide. He morally justifies his actions by pursuing what he deems best for his brother. Connie does so without recognizing or learning from his continual pattern of taking one-step forward, only to fall two steps behind.

Through his association with Ray, Connie faces the truth about himself and his circumstances. Ray has never really attempted to take control of his life and goes with the flow rather than adopting Connie’s approach of masterminding the next con-move. Ray’s breaking point comes when the police nearly apprehend him and he realizes how close he has come to going back to jail. He calls out Connie’s self-centeredness and air of superiority. In response, Connie doubles down proclaiming, “I am better than you… losers like you are either leeching off mommy or leeching off welfare or living off the government in jail.” The hypocrisy here is that Connie has leeched off of his girlfriend and the kindness of others. Moments after this catharsis, the police arrive at the hideout. Connie attempts to make a run for it and the camera now switches to a bird’s eye view. From Ray’s perspective, Connie appears to be a petty, powerless criminal who serves no purpose for the greater good, which is precisely what Connie accused Ray of being moments earlier. Ray watches as the police put Connie into the back of a squad car and wants no part of it. Ray falls to his death in an ill-fated attempt to move across the window ledge of the apartment building. It is at that exact moment that the Safdie brothers shift the camera’s perspective back to Connie. The close up of Connie’s face displays Connie’s realization of his true self, his doomed fate, and what a fool he has been. In this last moment of reflection, he is the center of his mind’s eye and he recognizes his guilt.

By the conclusion of the film, Connie goes to jail, Nick begins the rest of his days in a psychiatric institution, Corey cannot escape her mom’s apartment building and Ray is dead. It is not entirely clear which fate is the most tragic. Through this resulting social commentary, the narrative genius of the Safdie brothers shines most. By exposing the falsehood of one’s presumption of power, the Safdies awaken viewers to the inescapable consequences of their actions and weaknesses, along with the vulnerability of their own fate.

Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.