Safdie & Safdie: Good Time (2017)
One of the most hyped films at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival – and a film that still feels somewhat improbable as a Cannes release – Good Time plays as a logical endpoint of the dayglo machismo that has entranced indie cinema ever since the release of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Directed by the Safdie Brothers, the film is also about a pair of brothers – Connie Nikas, played by Robert Pattinson, and Nick Nikas, played by Ben Safdie – and the volatile story they leave in their wake over a twenty-four hour period in Manhattan and Queens. At the heart of the story is Nick’s developmental disability, and Connie’s determination to do everything he can to prevent his brother being institutionalised, by way of a crime caper that more or less plays as a sustained chase sequence. At first, that involves the brothers busting Nick out of psychiatric care, then it involves them committing a heist together and, finally, it involves Connie doing everything he can to restore their relationship once Nick is caught on the run and returned to the psychiatric institution. Along the way, Connie’s motivations for “protecting” his brother grow more and more diffuse, until it feels as if the prospect of proper care for Nick is an affront to his own ideal of fraternal masculinity as much as his relationship with his brother. Indeed, so committed is Connie to that ideal that he is eventually prepared to destroy himself rather than compromise it a single inch, falling to his death from a top floor apartment before we cut back to a final sequence in which Nick appears to have been well and truly institutionalised, although whether that’s a pessimistic or more hopeful outcome is hard to discern in any stable way.
In the process, Good Time not only culminates the neon-clad style of post-Refn action cinema, but the peculiarly petulant and regressive version of masculinity that it promulgates. In this particular world, reactionary gender politics and a self-consciously stylised “cinematic” address are one and the same, in what amounts to a series of set pieces that are utterly disinterested in our charismatic investment in the characters passing across the screen in front of us. Of course, that’s not in itself a problem, and indeed one of the most striking features of the film is its blankness, with Nick barely displaying more than one facial expression over the course of his short time in the spotlight, and Connie growing more deadpan as the action around him grows more kinetic and frenetic. In some ways, the most interesting scene between the two occurs at the beginning, when this strange blankness that they share – a blankness that seems to render them incommensurate with each other but that also forms a kind of communion in and of itself – is allowed to be front and centre without the continual, propulsive action that drives the remainder of the film. Once that kicks in, we’re left with a fairly contrived choice between anarchic masculinity and institutionalised masculinity, with anything even approaching the surreal calm of those opening minutes framed as part of the same institutionalisation that needs to be contained by Connie. In other words, then, Good Time is indie in quite an emphatic, performative – and, in some ways, dated – fashion, suggesting that only the most restless and frenetic momentum is enough to keep the institutional tendencies of even its own audience at bay.
Narratively, that produces something akin to an indie bro film, and, more specifically an indie film about Jewish bros – or Jewbros as they have come to be known – as the Safdies mobilise the Jewbro as a figurehead for this uneasy position on the fringe of institutionalised culture. Within American culture generally, Jewish men stand at an oblique relation to mainstream values, which often results in them being framed as a kind of off-white identity – whiter, to be sure, than any other major minority, but also too varied in national background to count as white per se, while also – perhaps most critically – lacking the waspier affiliations that constitute whiteness as much as actual skin tone. In other words, the presence of Jewish machismo – especially when framed as conventionally and conservatively as it is here – stands as a kind of challenge to the whiteness of whiteness itself, which is perhaps why Good Time takes place largely at night, and amidst lighting schemes in which face and skin tones get lost, seeping into an off-white, anarchic aesthetic that’s not dissimilar to the tetchy irreverence of some of the most canonical Beastie Boys clips. At moments, it reminded me of the cinematographic strategies used by Insecure and Get Out to draw the full gradation of non-white skin tones into proper relief, except that here there’s more of a focus on off-white, rather than non-white, texture.
In some ways, that comparison – especially with Insecure – captures some of the pitfalls of this off-white, Jewbro persona as well, since while it’s hard to categorically frame Jewish masculinity as “white” per se, it’s equally hard to frame it as black, or to pretend that it encompasses blackness. Yet that’s just what Good Time – like the Beastie Boys before it – tacitly does, not merely in the casual entitlement with which it relegates black people to collateral damage, or in its apparent comfort with using the word “nigger” in regular conversation, but in its fusion of a contemporary gangsta ethos with an older and much more sentimental – or sententious – vision of Queens whiteness, whose off-beat or awry qualities are finally folded into the Nikas’ Jewish heritage to present what might be described as a kind of gritty whiteness, a version of whiteness – deflected through Judaism – that no longer has to worry or concern itself with speaking on behalf of other groups of people. The result is a kind of unholy alliance between Jewish and whiteness that may start with Connie describing himself and Nick as “just you and me, on the fringe,” but that feels more conservative and conventional as the film proceeds, as the extraordinary fluorescent palette – propelled by an exploding dye-pack in the opening scenes, and kaleidoscoping out as night descends – that has preoccupied so much recent cinema here devolves into a kind of cinematography of deracination, a way of lighting bodies so that the camera’s inherent gravitation towards whiteness is concealed amidst a supposedly ecumenical burst of colour.
For all the acclaim it’s received then, and despite its considerable stylistic ambition, I couldn’t help but feel that there was something of a bad faith gesture about Good Time, and the way it offers up indie masculinity as a defiantly revanchist gesture. No doubt, it’s a considerable formal achievement to maintain the momentum of a chase film for ninety odd minutes, and to its credit the film never really stops or loses its propulsive drive, compressing the present tense more than moving sequentially through it. Yet it would be hard to deny that the score by Oneohtrix Point Never plays a pretty big role here, and that the film in many ways is an accompaniment to the score – an attempt to visualise something commensurate to Daniel Lopatin’s sonic landscape – rather than the other way around. While there may not be any real reprieve from the propulsive tension, there’s not really a great deal of escalation either, with the result that Good Time approaches slow cinema at moments, or at least dovetails the defiance of slow cinema with the defiance of indie cinema to create a release in which attitude and auteurism almost inevitably go in hand. Defiantly conservative but equally anxious to present that conservatism as an innovation, it’s a film so consumed by its own ostensible originality that I found it hard to genuinely engage with it at any real level, making for one of my more oddball film viewings of 2017.
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