Urban Legends

With the breakneck New York crime story Good Time, Josh and Benny Safdie’s knotty cinema of dysfunction takes another twist

By Eric Hynes

Recently I rode a crowded E train to New York’s JFK Airport. The one-stop journey from Jackson Heights–Roosevelt Avenue/74th Street to Forest Hills–71st Avenue is a protracted one, a fact that attracts entrepreneurs looking for a captive audience. Sure enough, as soon as the doors closed a man piped up to hawk light-up fidget spinners and bling bling rings. Five dollars each, buy two get one free. With practiced skill, everyone looked extra intently at their smartphones, books, companions, and empty laps. Eventually the dude got on a ramble, comparing himself to LeBron James and offering surprisingly detailed basketball analyses before looping expertly back to the light-up fidget spinners and bling bling rings, five dollars each buy two get one free. This time through he was also selling furry bow-tie pencils and calling for the Cavs to trade J.R. Smith for Russell Westbrook. By now the mood had shifted, faces lifted and smiled quietly, and thought bubbles of “okay, I actually love this city” hung above every head in the car. Then the train stopped before it reached Forest Hills—signal failure—leaving us suspended for five additional minutes. Just long enough for the guy to wear out his hard-fought welcome, not that he noticed.

In other words, a Safdie film happened on the E train. In just over a decade, brothers Josh and Benny Safdie have managed to spin uncanny urban encounters into an artistic brand. They’ve filled a rucksack with shorts (some made as undergraduates at Boston University) about cringe-inducing confrontations on a city bus (There’s Nothing You Can Do), street corner scams (Straight Hustle), upstairs-downstairs apartment feuds (The Back of Her Head), convenience store bromances (The Acquaintances of a Lonely John), and semiprofessional statuesque busking (Solid Gold). Starting in 2008 they’ve made two feature-length documentaries and four feature-length narratives out of phenomena like casual kleptomania (The Pleasure of Being Robbed), eccentric, borderline certifiable single parenting (Daddy Longlegs), and the love lives of the young and homeless (Heaven Knows What). At their best, the films don’t just mooch off the city’s story surplus—they also feed into it, contributing truly odd, activated extensions of urban life. With their newest, Good Time, they’ve fashioned a classic New York adventure story in which troubled characters traverse bridges, tunnels, a prison, a hospital, a dinky theme park, and a White Castle en route to a hot pursuit in a housing project.

The film opened in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and stars Robert Pattinson as Connie Nikas and Benny Safdie as his developmentally disabled brother, Nick. It’s Pattinson’s best performance, with the English pretty boy thoroughly passing for an outer-borough guttersnipe, while Benny, always a more enthusiastic performer than his big brother, is every bit his equal, wrenching soul-baring feeling from a part that reads quite dubious on paper. The film kicks into gear when the duo nervously pull off a New York bank heist, but when their escape goes wrong, Connie gets away while Nick is apprehended, then gets beaten badly in prison. This all unspools before the opening credits have finished. The remainder of the film takes place over a single night, with Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and its running-on-ice, things-gone-from-bad-to-worse energy serving as an apt point of departure. The plot is as simple as a one-liner, as direct as a bullet, and more arduous than you could imagine: Connie tries to post Nick’s bail. Ninety minutes and numerous snags later, he’s still trying. It makes for the brothers’ sturdiest and most satisfying narrative to date.

When New York natives Josh and Benny arrived on the art-house circuit with The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008, their only feature in which Josh assumes sole directorial credit) narrative seemed like the least of their concerns. Their work had a peripatetic spirit, defined not by turning points or character developments but by an arrhythmic, this-then-that progression of free-flowing incident. Why not steal a car, and then why not drive it to Boston? As with various other characters in the brothers’ early shorts, frequent Safdie player Eléonore Hendricks embodies a burst of color in a grayscale urban landscape, a cut against the grain of the day-to-day, the anarchic impulse personified. It made for absorbing cinema in which actions weren’t predictable (except in that they could be predictably eccentric), and motivations weren’t just mysterious but seemingly beside the point. The audience is kept as intensely in the moment as are the characters, a state that’s reinforced by mobile, skittish camerawork that straddles the line between documentary-style observation (zooming and panning from across the street) and intimate, face-trawling subjectivity.

The potential for subjective experience within an otherwise recognizably realistic milieu sometimes opened into outright fantasy—à la Michel Gondry, whose stylizations had reached peak influence during the brothers’ early years. In The Pleasure of Being Robbed, right after Hendricks’s Eléonore is apprehended for stealing again, and after she implausibly convinces a cop to remove her handcuffs so that she can gallivant around the Central Park Zoo, she makes her way into a pool to commune with a polar bear. Nothing in the edit conveys unreality other than the ostentatious fakeness of the bear. The city serves as a canvas onto which our heroine brushes and splashes together a life. Her gestures are improvisational and willful, resisting limitations and oftentimes, thanks to her adorability and the filmmakers’ deployment of it, transcending and redrawing those limitations.

There’s a kindred force of eccentric bohemian entitlement at play in the Safdies’ follow-up, Daddy Longlegs (2009), albeit to a different effect. Ronald Bronstein plays Lenny, a dashing, borderline boorish piece of work who makes a living as a projectionist and cares for his two young sons on a strictly limited basis. Lenny has similar “my life is my art” tendencies to Eléonore (Hendricks turns up in Daddy Longlegs as Bronstein’s sorta girlfriend), but this time there are clearer consequences. This film’s handmade Gondrian fantasy sequence is a more clearly demarcated bad dream in which a giant mosquito and nighttime prowler offer not a liberated mental getaway but proof that even overgrown boys can have crippling parental anxieties.

The Safdies (both now directing, with the elder Josh contributing to the picture and Ben to the sound) dedicate the film to their father and mother, and there are avowed elements of their own family story fed into the narrative. Yet the film’s point of view sticks fascinatingly, and at times frustratingly, with the patriarch. It serves as a generous act of empathy toward an enervating figure whose actions slide between inspiring and infantile, defiant and dickish, loving and solipsistic. Throughout, the filmmakers allow room for revulsion at Lenny’s words and actions—he’s a dyspeptic sort who tends to treat others transactionally, trailed by a cloud of unexamined, misapplied rage—but between Bronstein’s stormy charisma and rakish salt-and-pepper pompadour, and the film’s unflagging interest in the same, it’s easy to be won over. Whether or not you’d ever want a father, or a lover, or an ex-partner like Lenny, he makes for seductive cinema, satisfying a John Cassavetes effect (the actor, not the director) in which rational suspicions are overtaken by on-screen charisma.

Both films explore tensions between workaday society and its free agents. Collateral damages from liberated acts are acknowledged, yet also accepted as inevitable, perhaps even necessary in the fostering of lives of originality and spontaneity—cinematic lives. It’s a rich tension, and certainly worthy of ongoing artistic exploration, but in these films I get snagged on a sense of judgment levied toward anyone who isn’t the actor or enabler of these charmed lives. The city is their stage, and those they encounter are either their foil or our local color (and often literally so). Whither the grocer who watched helplessly while Eleonore helped herself to free grapes; whither the kind neighbor who gets peed on by Lenny’s kids; whither Paige, the boys’ mom, who’s presented only briefly and always as a berating harpy, her unrelenting intolerance of Lenny’s eccentricities serving to ennoble rather than offset or contextualize them. In lieu of any overriding moral concerns in these films is a privileging of dynamism and disruptive behavior. Cassavetes, the director, is a touchstone here, but in his films such machinations were never meant to have meaning in themselves—they were rather means toward substantive, if elusive ends: love, connection, emotional clarity, complex mutual understanding. There’s no such striving in these early Safdie Brothers’ films, just an ennobling of unconventionality.

T he brothers’ docu-stylings gave rise to two actual documentaries, Buttons (2011) and Lenny Cooke (2013). The latter played for me as a fascinating missed opportunity, being an impassioned attempt to revive a New Jersey basketball playground legend that nevertheless fails to alight upon a workable form for its copious archival material, or to satisfactorily solve for the filmmakers’ dual impulses toward fanboyish adoration and editorial analysis (further complicated by a racial difference too easily elided through big-city commonality). But these straight documentaries seem crucial for the brothers’ zagging toward the thrilling clash of realism and artificiality of Heaven Knows What (2014), a film in which a non-actor performs the story of her own life, while the apparatus and affectations of the form are aggressively pushed to the fore. On one hand it’s an apotheosis of a decade’s work, representing their most authentically streetwise film to date, and on the other it stood as a departure, especially in how the aesthetics of the film aren’t always meant to align with that of its characters. A novelistic space opens between performance and the produced work, doubtless related to the fact that the brothers and co-screenwriter Bronstein were adapting lead actress Arielle Holmes’s own unpublished autobiographical book. The distancing, notably enhanced by an omnipresent, high-decibel electronic score by Paul Grimstad and Ariel Pink, actually invites greater sympathy by allowing the viewer to find his or her own way in. It’s a film that doesn’t beg to be liked, nor does it exult in a desire to be disliked. Rather, it’s committed to depicting Holmes’s (aka Harley’s) experience as a homeless junkie, expressing a familiarly Safdiean urban romanticism that may or may not match her own outlook, but nevertheless doing so as empathetic reverie rather than exploitative self-branding.

In depicting an ecosystem of addiction and desperation coexistent with but invisible to proper society, the filmmakers weren’t flaunting their own antiestablishment cred so much as weighing the costs for those who don’t have much choice. They were also making crackling cinema, aided by Sean Price Williams’s urgent, elusive-beauty-corralling camerawork and Bronstein and Benny Safdie’s downhill, one-step-ahead editing. Their films have always moved, and have always sought to syncopate with New York’s rhythms, but Heaven Knows What feels pushed from within and without, emulating Harley’s emotional, chemical, and physical instability, and journeying, day in and day out, from one crash pad, shelter, and park bench to the next.

Somehow, Good Time is even more agile—this one really, really moves. It feels like a freefall, albeit a fall with sharp turns, twists inside of tumbles inside of falls, and hair dye. A scene about a credit card being declined plays like the Mexican standoff in Reservoir Dogs. Connie’s commitment to springing Nick from custody is as total and irrational as Harley’s passion for the abusive nihilist Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones) in Heaven Knows What, but this time the shadier character is the one in pursuit. We never learn much about Connie other than that he’s a second- or third- generation Greek American, that he’s devoted to his brother, that he’s a criminal, and that he’s a first-rate user of people. The simple setup and brotherly bond ensure that the audience is invested in Connie’s quest, which has the blunt elegance of classic revenge thrillers and action movies, even if the underlying reason for his dilemma—a transgression that proved too intense for his brother to play it cool over—isn’t exactly universal. But over time, and after a variety of encounters with both impeding and amenable strangers, it becomes harder to countenance Connie’s steamrolling misanthropy. “Don’t be confused,” he berates someone who’s already needlessly helped him, “it’s just going to make it worse for me.”

Moral justifications are nil. Except for a few glancing interactions with cops, everyone Connie encounters lacks any real power over him, and most try to help out. Furthermore, they’re mostly working-class immigrants. A white bank robber angling for favors from decent, overworked non-white people isn’t easy to accept, and certainly not in accumulation. By the time he steals an innocent black man’s uniform, car, apartment, and dog, and lets him be carried away to lord knows what kind of fate by the authorities, you’re ready to forswear brotherly love forever. Speaking of brothers, it seems important to mention that the Safdies set the film’s events in motion by dressing their fictional brothers in rubber blackface for the robbery. After spending their early films exulting in freedom from employment, buoying and buoyed by a kind of boho-anarcho amorality, the Safdies made a film dunked in the gasoline of white privilege, and they lit a match.

The filmmakers continue to clang documentary-style realism against subjective expressionism, but there’s greater depth and import to that aspect as well. Pattinson is often shot as if he’s commandeering a genre film, be it the one we’re watching or another playing out in his mind. There’s a sequence that takes place in the wee hours of a shadowy Queens apartment in which the movie star playing a lowlife playing a crusading would-be hero passes through a full spectrum of ambient colored light, like Lee Marvin fending off mod marauders in Point Blank except he’s just invaded a kind Jamaican woman’s home and seduced her 16-year-old granddaughter. Meanwhile most others in the film seem like regular people native to these environments (even if they aren’t), enduring the misfortune of running into this shifty man on a mission. The Safdies have always had a true eye for the city, and there’s nothing fabricated-feeling about the locations in Good Time, from a barely glanced rent-controlled Manhattan apartment to the halls of an old hospital in Elmhurst, Queens. But they go beyond capturing the city this time around, successfully conveying how it actually looks and feels while also creating it anew. It’s as if the guy selling light-up fidget spinners and bling bling rings walked directly off the train into a double-time, morally tenuous chase sequence.

More than deepening and challenging their auteurist project, Good Time feels like it might even liberate them from such youthful self-definitions. The more accomplished and ambitious their projects become, the more collective and inclusive the work seems. From Sean Price Williams’s astonishingly variegated cinematography, in which every available light is less a resource than an opportunity for imagistic adventure, to a propulsive electronic score by Oneohtrix Point Never (aka Daniel Lopatin) that is frequently so present that it feels like the primary driving force, the bounds of what constitutes a Safdie Brothers film have been pushed back. Why not push everything further out and up? Why capture the city mid-stride when you can reset it to your own speed? Why not experiment with a clearer and cleaner narrative line? Why not ask Buddy Duress, the local character discovered on the last film, to deliver an extended, cockamamie record-scratch, so absurd and exhausting it becomes brilliant monologue? Why not bring back menacing helicopter shots in this era of drifting drones? (Maybe that last one’s just a personal wish.) For filmmakers that have been so committed to offsetting reality and fiction, Good Time suggests that they might be forging an expansive third path in which neither element needs to be proven or justified. You’ve got the team. You’ve got game. Now go.

Closer Look: Good Time opens on August 11.

Eric Hynes is a journalist and critic, and associate film curator at Museum of the Moving Image in New York.