“Ezra,” the second track on Oneohtrix Point Never’s 2016 album Gardens of Delete, is built around a series of seemingly disconnected movements. An ominous, echoing call for the eponymous figure precedes propulsive synths, which in turn precede the sounds of a swiftly plucked upright bass. Around a minute in, we reach a section of the song that Daniel Lopatin, the man behind the Oneohtrix mask, calls “Contra,” after the 1987 Konami arcade game. A pitch-shifted pseudo-Gregorian chant is blanketed by a wave of fractious synths. Tension builds as the speed of repetition subtly increases before giving in to a minor rollback; a smooth easing off before the crescendo. Electronic drums sound like the rapid firing of pistons as a more tightly controlled version of the earlier melody slides out, like a getaway car peeling off into the night.
This gear shifting moment is what brings me vividly back into the headspace of Josh and Benny Safdie’s sixth feature, Good Time. The association isn’t obtuse: Lopatin scored the film under his Oneohtrix moniker and his music is essential to the film’s energy. Where Isao Tomita’s Moog renderings of Debussy haunted the New York streets in the Safdies’ last film, Heaven Knows What, Lopatin’s music fires up just as it would in a video game, triggered by and responding directly to the actions of a character on screen. It underscores the structure of Good Time too, a film of discrete sequences that plays out like a visually arresting episode of COPS, with a series of unusual crimes and police reports all connected by one man perpetually on the lam.
Robert Pattinson’s Constantine Nikas, wiry and manic in equal measure, is dangerous because he’s fearless. In every claustrophobic, neon-drenched space he moves through — Sean Price William’s gritty 35mm cinematography casts a hospital, an amusement park and a stranger’s high-rise apartment as partially destitute locales — he never seems uncomfortable or at a loss, even as circumstances mount irrevocably against him. Shedding disguises and manipulating the kindness of strangers, Connie spends Good Time seemingly in search for atonement. After pulling his younger brother Nick (co-director Benny Safdie, in a heartbreaking performance) out of behavioural therapy, Connie enlists him in a small-scale bank heist. Donning rubber masks that make them out to be older African-American men, they demand $65,000 in cash from the bemused teller (a memorable wordless turn from an uncredited actress), hoping to use the earnings to escape from New York to Florida. Instead, Nick gets picked up by the police and ends up in the Rikers Island correctional facility. Connie gets $16,480 in ink-stained banknotes, which a local bail bondsman refuses to accept in full. To get Nick out of Rikers, Connie needs to produce $10,000 as soon as possible.
As in many a good low-concept thriller, the money Connie hunts after is a MacGuffin; the promise of Nick’s release (by Connie’s doing, at least), drains away as Connie’s destined source of capital changes physical forms: his girlfriend Corey’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) credit card, a backpack full of cash, a Sprite bottle filled with acid.1 What Connie accrues instead is connections, a long string of passersby roped into his ever-evolving cash-grab schemes. Each in their own way, everyone who comes into Connie’s orbit is a victim of his bluster. In a hilariously scripted (and wholly unexpected) moment, he meets a newly paroled alcoholic (Heaven Knows What’s Buddy Duress) who knows where a stash of cash is.2 The man, sporting some serious damage to his face and body, is less a sidekick than a captive; Connie drags him from place to place and, in one of the film’s best scripted moments, Duress kicks back: “You think you’re better than me.” Pattinson’s eyes widen, like he’s had a Eureka moment: “I am better than you.”
Connie’s sense of superiority comes from his sociopathic lack of empathy. He cares only for his brother, but as the film wears on he seems more driven by fulfilling a task he’s set for himself than the eventual release of Nick. He sees the world as filtered through snatches of public access television and decades-long crime dramas; everything and everyone bends to the accepted and assumed order of things, which Connie uses to his advantage. In one striking sequence, he plays off the police by beating and drugging a black security guard (Barkhad Abdi) and taking his uniform.3 When the NYPD arrive and see a black man, disheveled and disoriented on the floor of an amusement park ride, they don’t bother to investigate beyond the most cursory questions.
At the park the police also pick up a teenager, Crystal (newcomer Taliah Webster, perfectly cast), who Connie had manipulated — promising some woozy, sudden romance — for her car and her silence. Right before she’s put into the back of the police car, she turns and looks at Connie, decked out in an ill-fitting security uniform, and the Safdies hover on both faces in close up. Crystal moves from surprise to some weary understanding and Connie — for the only time in the film — seems vaguely sorry for the damage he’s done. The moment is short-lived, though. Connie has to get back to work.