Mercifully, pop-film trends are slowly-but-surely cycling back from 1980s nostalgia to 1970s grit-verité. As politics grow more impassioned by the hour and the American paradigm falls into contention once more, the ho-hum moral certitude of 1980s’ conservatism loses its charm, especially in comparison to the corruption and malaise of the ‘70s. Netflix’s Stranger Things is pretty much the only mock-‘80s media that can still pull its weight. The high ‘80s resurgence of the mid-aughts and the early 20-teens was replaced by ‘70s theming in less than five years. Major films like American Hustle (2013), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) Free Fire (2016), the criminally underrated The Nice Guys (2016), Baby Driver (2017), and, of course, the new Star Wars films are all either set in the ‘70s, draw inspiration from the decade’s iconography, or at the very least evoke an abstraction of the ‘grittiest’ ten years in 20th century American history. Warning: In case you haven’t gathered yet, this thesis is very Amero-centric, insofar as we’re talking about Hollywood films and the context in which they’re created, although I’ll freely extend these generalizations abroad to the swing-time filmography of 1970’s Britain (Edgar Wright of the aforementioned Baby Driver is indeed from the UK), France, and – if in terms of sheer pulpy-ness alone – Hong Kong and Japan (who actually got in on this trend before most anyone else with perhaps one of the most underappreciated films of all time, Fisshu Sutôrî (2009).)
All homage works off a paradigm; a workflow or a pattern. Let’s call it a ‘model.’ This ‘model’ can be a style, an auteur, a genre, or – more germane to this writing – a decade. It’s a tricky tight-rope to walk. Do it wrong, and you end up with contrived groan-inducing nonsense set to a shallow backdrop of tentpole soundscapes and hackneyed techniques. American Hustle has proved to be a sad example of how not to do a ‘70s homage. Do it well, a la Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, and the result is a kitschy wink-at-the-camera romp buoyed by the textures of its inspiration.
Do it very well, however, and you end up with something else entirely.
You end up with the Safdie brothers’ Good Time (2017).
Good Time is shot entirely on film and set in modern-day NYC, but evokes a certain breed of ‘70’s crime film with remarkable deftness and maturity, especially given the age of the filmmakers. I can’t imagine the confidence required for two barely-tested young directors, only on their third feature, to go after Sidney Lumet. It’s almost like asking a graduate student to make a Brian de Palma film. It simply isn’t done. And yet the opening of Good Time features no establishing shots, no wide shots, no medium shots, and is told entirely through almost twenty minutes of close-ups, snap zooms, extreme close-ups, and breathlessly complex handheld tracking shots. Good Time takes us from a therapist’s office in downtown Manhattan to a bank in Flushing without ever once giving the audience any semblance of spatial awareness. This is all before the opening credits roll; Good Time boasts one of the finest ‘cold opens’ in recent memory. Lumet employed this Nouvelle Vague style to irreproachable effect in close-quarters thrillers like Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Serpico (1973), and while the Safdie brothers can’t quite ratchet up the tension to those levels, their commitment to emulating Lumet’s style is a joy to behold. The shots of gaudy neon signs superimposed over helicopter top-downs and tracking shots across Bail Bond storefronts, drug dens, disused amusement parks and sallow-lit hospital halls call to mind a New York enshrined in the filth of celluloids-past. Theirs is the the kind of city Travis Bickle would have raged against.
Good Time unravels a borderline Shakespearean day in the life of brothers Constantine (Robert Pattinson) and Nick (Benny Safdie) Nikas. Brother Nick is arrested after a botched bank heist planned by Connie, and at the behest of a shady bail bondsman, Connie endeavors to scrounge up $10,000 to bail his brother out of jail, because “he can get killed in there.” Again following closely the Lumet tradition of casting non-marginalized actors as marginalized characters, Safdie’s Nick Nikas has a moderate learning disability. This is doubtlessly the fatal flaw of the film, not so much for the politics of the casting decision – although those are so obviously reprehensible they don’t bear mentioning – but rather for the clumsy insertion of a Of Mice and Men-esque wrap-up. No spoilers, don’t worry – there’s no “Tell me about the rabbits, George” scene here – but the underpinning theme of ‘finding a place where you can do whatever you want, whenever you want’ is dropped roughly on the audience’s head in the last twenty minutes of the film, so much so that Iggy Pop croaks out a lyric saying as much, verbatim, in the song that plays over the credits.
The issue of race will inevitably emerge in any crime film at street level, particularly one so ostensibly committed to verisimilitude as Good Time. The Safdie brothers pull no punches. The main characters are white. Most of the supporting cast is white. Their whiteness enables them to hold power over people of color. Midway through the film, Connie manipulates and jeopardizes the safety of two black women – a grandmother and her granddaughter – culminating in a very uncomfortable romantic encounter and a carjacking. In the beginning of the film, the two white brothers don masks that resemble black men in order to rob a bank. Connie attacks and strips a black man to pose as a security guard (Barkhad Abdi) – another powerful instance of whiteness impersonating blackness and stripping blackness of its authority. These motifs are understated but impossible to miss, and so reveal the cruel hierarchy of street-level crime in racially diverse city environments.
Good Time gets more outer-borough as it goes on, opening in the heart of downtown Manhattan and closing out far enough along the outskirts of Queens that the f**king Nassau County Sheriff’s Department shows up. It’s a fitting metaphor for the structure of the film. The narrative starts off tightly-wound and well-gridded, with a controlled form of city-centered chaos. By the middle, it opens up into a convoluted fetch-quest type domino chain, in which actions and their consequences are rattled off rapid fire in different directions, damaging people hitherto unknown to the world of this story. Characters flit in and out of the plot, seemingly haphazardly, but with all the punch and pith of the real-world players in crime’s sinuous cityscape.
By narrative’s end, the chaos has decentralized and diffused out into the brothers’ neon-splattered vision of NYC, with multiple characters, plot-lines, goals and pitfalls crisscrossing and riveting outward into the suburban chaos of unplanned streets. It’s truly remarkable to watch writer Josh Safdie’s script unfurl, partially because we see most of this undoing through Constantine, who looks dead-eyed and glazed around at his world disintegrating, asking the camera – but not us – for penance. He’s riding high and fast to some great crash, we can be sure, and we’re breathlessly tuned to whatever frequency sends him there.
The remarkable score only heightens this feeling of impending collision. The warbling chords and low-fi drones fill the soundscape with an anxiety and the promise of ill fortune. Oneohtrix Point Never (Daniel Lopatin) crafts intimate, dark neon-synth leitmotifs of a world populated by doomed men and damaged bystanders. It’s equal parts Vangelis and Brian Eno. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better original soundtrack done in the last few years, and although that’s personal taste talking, I’m going to be mad as hell when everyone fronts the new Blade Runner 2049 (2017) soundtrack as one of the most ‘unique’ this year.
Good Time fuels a very particular type of filmic tension that we subconsciously associate with the grit and depth of 1970s New York City crime films. This market was all but dominated by Mr. Lumet, and as such there is no attempting to make a film of that style without gunning for the master. That said, the Safdie brothers do about as good of a job as possible. More to the point, they execute their homage with that much-coveted distinction that propels such films from “good” to “great.” They truly modernize the riff. By setting Good Time in modern-day NYC, and by having their characters deliver dialogue with modern urban affectation, the Safdie brothers capture a dirty portrait of a city’s underbelly in a time when such pedestrian depictions of crime have been replaced by opera (The Sopranos) or post-modernism (The Wire). There is something wholly genuine about Good Time. It is this word – genuine – that justifies the greatness of the homage.
A taut and gritty thriller with intimate cinematography and an inspired score. Comparisons to Sidney Lumet are well-deserved, but this is a genuine and respectful homage to the crime-verité style of the 1970s.