It was hard not to draw a couple of conclusions about current cinema from the 1970s New York program on at Film Forum last month: that the gentrification of the city has been accompanied by a gentrification of filmmaking styles; and that the New York-based thriller has undergone a sharp decline. The New York of The French Connection and Klute is still with us—the architecture and the elevated train rails, if less of the street signage and none of the old-model cars—but it tends to be omitted onscreen in films that show the cobblestoned streets of DUMBO, SoHo, and TriBeCa (it’s so often obviously those three neighborhoods) as trash-free zones of glossy self-realization and not quite tragic heartache. New York is now a city of respectable careerists. Missing are the sort of inept policemen who in Aram Avakian’s Cops and Robbers hit on a scheme to rip off a gangster in order to liberate themselves from their daily hours stuck in traffic on the BQE.
The terrain of the gritty street crime thriller has meanwhile largely been ceded to a kitchified Boston (as in The Departed or The Town) or a sweaty Atlanta (last year’s Triple 9). The New York period piece still thrives—see A Most Violent Year or American Hustle—but feeds on the notion that sleaziness and crime are things of the past. There are exceptions, of course—like James Gray’s The Yards or We Own the Night, or Michaël R. Roskam’s The Drop—but more typical is a shiny moralizing piece of trash like Allen Hughes’s Broken City. The presence in Broken City of Griffin Dunne, as the developer behind the corrupt mayor’s machinations, was a reminder of how far we are from After Hours, Martin Scorcese’s nocturnal SoHo freakout. In After Hours Dunne starred as a yuppie on the loose when there was still plenty of danger to be found downtown on any given night.
It’s the spirit of After Hours and Cops and Robbers that pervades Good Time, the new thriller by the brothers Josh and Benny Safdie. If future revivalists ever program a New York in the Teens festival, Good Time will have to be at its center. Connie and Nick, two brothers played by Robert Pattinson and Benny Safdie, are a pair of less than competent bank robbers. Nick is actually mentally disabled—rendered with moving pathos by Safdie—and the point of their heist is a windfall that will allow them to retreat somewhere south of the city and live in the woods, far away from the sort of invasive social services workers we see counseling him in the film’s opening scenes and the not entirely sweet grandmother who’s a source of Nick’s traumas. Connie’s plan involves a note, hoodies, and a pair of somewhat lifelike masks that make the brothers look like black men, then a getaway by bus from the Port Authority. It would be a hare-brained plan even if it weren’t for the cloud of incriminating red dye that bursts from the backpack full of cash just after they leave the bank.
Movie bank robberies have grown increasingly technical over the decades: enough blueprints, hardware, sangfroid, and hours in the library researching metals and we could all be Robert De Niro in Heat. Good Time restores the desperation and dirtbag absurdity of the endeavor. The film has room at once for pain and outrageous twists that lend the film an outlaw jocularity. Nick loses his nerve when approached by the cops and is arrested after running through a plate glass window. He’s taken to Riker’s Island, where his face is soon further bloodied. Connie spends the rest of the film trying to raise his bail (in clean bills) or break him out of hospital lockup. The overnight quest takes him to the apartment of a girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh, playing the pliable lover of a significantly younger man), a bail bondsman’s office, Adventureland in Long Island City (in a scene that plays like a deranged version of the funhouse finale of Lady from Shanghai), and to the Tivoli Towers apartment complex in Crown Heights. The cramped dwellings, grimy White Castle franchises, and exhaust-filled expressways of this nightmare are parts of the city that sit beside the gentrified zones that prefer to pretend they don’t exist.
Pattinson, the Twilight vampire and the vampire capitalist in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, is deglamorized almost beyond recognition, then bleached blond when he sees his mug on the local news. Brotherly loyalty sparks new powers of resourcefulness in Connie, and he takes advantage of anyone unlucky enough to come into his orbit, including a stoned teenage girl (Taliyah Webster), a security guard (Barkhard Abdi), and another criminal (Buddy Duress). The filmmakers at times seem at pains to portray him as someone more sympathetic and selfless than a mere common criminal, though he lies, steals a car or two, kidnaps someone, poisons somebody else, and commits multiple assaults. But we root for him, mostly.
That’s because the Safdies have hit on a magical combination of the hyper-realism of their earlier films Heaven Knows What (2014), a searing portrait of a heroin addict (Arielle Holmes) on the Upper West Side, and The Pleasures of Being Robbed (2008), about a charming kleptomaniac (Eleonore Hendricks) adept at stealing handbags, and a purely cinematic ethos of amateur criminality derived from the sleazy 1970s. Their filming style—tight shots that follow characters as if attached to their necks by a leash—has the weird effect of making even the outdoors seem claustrophobic. There was something of this mix of the light and the heavy in Daddy Longlegs (2010), but that film was ultimately an endearing portrait of a loving father (based on the Safdies’ dad) just bumbling enough to knock out his sons for days on sleeping pills but not neglectful enough to convince the audience he’d let them come to real harm. Daddy Longlegs is sentimentality at its edgiest. Good Time is considerably grimmer but also considerably more fun. It suggests a dark, shadowy future—occasionally pierced by blinding neon lights—for a genre that’s lately seemed broken.