Think about the last time you were so close to another person’s face you could almost kiss them. It was probably your significant other. It might have been your child. Perhaps you were actually giving your parent or grandparent a peck on the cheek. Unless this person was your significant other or child, you probably didn’t spend much time face-to-face with them. The nearness is too intimate for any but the most intimate relationships.
Cinema subsists on this kind of intimacy. The close-up is the one of the most basic building blocks of cinema. It isn’t the first shot ever made—that honor goes to a “long shot” of workers leaving the Lumière factory—but it is the shot that moved cinema from being merely captured “actualities” to being stories. (That first cinematic story, by the way, was of Thomas Edison’s assistant, Fred Ott, sneezing and, importantly, recovering from that sneeze.) A close-up gives us a character and, most importantly, a suggestion of how they feel about whatever is happening. Close-ups create characters and invite us to empathize with them, to feel what they feel.
Good Time, the new film from sibling filmmaking duo Josh and Bennie Safdie, consists almost entirely of close-ups. Occasionally they include a medium or long shot when it would be impossible to communicate an essential spatial relationship without one, but even these shots feel reluctant as if they’d rather just stay in close. The Safdie’s seem to want us to empathize with their characters in the moment of their conflict. They give us little else, so there is nothing else we can do.
It might prove difficult to empathize with the film’s protagonist otherwise. Connie Nikas robs banks, manipulates his friends and family, and is quick to violence when he can’t get immediately what he wants. In all of this he puts his mentally handicapped brother, Nick (director Benny Safdie), at risk, and he justifies this by claiming he is doing all for his brother’s benefit, refusing to believe that “the system” could be on his brother’s side. Connie is the kind of man who has always been on society’s fringes. He has no reason whatsoever to trust any part of the system. He’s like a stray dog, kicked by society, and a pick-up away from permanent incarceration or worse. Good Time makes this Connie/dog equivalence explicit in the second half of the movie, but in the first half as Connie runs and scrambles through the streets all but foaming at the mouth and desperate for whatever scrap of help he can get, you might make the man/dog connection without the movie’s direct reference.
Good Time depends greatly on Robert Pattinson’s performance. He is electric, the fire in his eyes like the gas in the many neon tubes that light each scene. I’ve long thought Pattinson should take the kind of roles Robert Mitchum used to take. Here, he does, though it’s as if a classic Robert Mitchum movie has been filtered through a psychedelic sieve.
Electronic composer Oneohtrix’s (Daniel Lopatin) score floods every scene with a manic energy that is one step removed from chaos. It sounds like the synapses firing in Connie’s brain as he pivots from one crisis to the next, hyped up on adrenaline. There’s a method to it, one dictated by evolutionary advantage, but it’s beyond our ability to codify and fully comprehend. Just feel it. Don’t think it. Let it flow.
Good Time’s refusal to provide context to either its characters or its plot is both its greatest affective strength and greatest narrative weakness. Connie’s “why” flits by in a snippet of dialog faster than he runs down the street. He doesn’t think he matters societally, but he’s trying to matter in the life of his brother. He needs to be needed by Nick, because he isn’t needed by anyone else. There’s a kind of love there—he wants to take care of his brother—but it’s a selfish love that will deny his brother the help his disability requires. Good Time pushes this kind of love to its limit, let’s it dangle exposed for all to see, and invites us to consider it. In the end, there is something more critical than compassionate guiding Good Time, but there is compassion there too.