The German playwright and theater director Bertolt Brecht pioneered the artistic strategy of alienation, or more accurately put, distancing, which compels the audience to think critically about the theatrical spectacle being watched. Standard uses of this strategy include having an actor directly speak to the audience (breaking the fourth wall), refusing emotional identification with the character(s), narrative disruption(s), and reminding the audience of what they are watching by exposing the construction of the spectacle.
Directed by Benny and Josh Safdie, Good Time initially distances us from what we are watching. From an economically-impoverished NYC neighborhood, Connie Nikas recruits his mentally-challenged brother, Nick, into being an accomplice for a bank robbery. Yet we never gain any knowledge about the crime—why it was committed, what was the hoped-for outcome. We have to supply the answers for any questions we ask.
Presumably, we have to address why Connie, with his apparently limited foresight and resources, would decide to commit such a risky crime, given the odds of failure and probable imprisonment. I suppose that people who play the lottery run up against the same odds, and either don’t know, or care, but the stakes are, of course, not nearly as high. On this issue, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has a similar perspective.
What the film shows, but does not explain, is epitomized by the 80s Wall Street culture of cynicism and greed (see The Wolf of Wall Street ), which for many changed the American Dream into the hope of beating an increasingly rigged system. As a product of this culture and now in charge of the country, Trump, even in his first year, has normalized a level of corruption usually expected not to be seen outside of a dictatorship.
Again, this idea does not explain the crime, but it does give a pretty good indication of what guides Connie’s thinking: a desire to get away with something, and a belief that he can. Of course, what happens to a guy who assumes he’s smarter than everyone else is predictable—and damaging to Nick, who is caught while Connie escapes.
Then Good Time pushes beyond this feeling of alienation, or distancing. The tight close-ups and blaring music draw us into Connie’s desperate and frantic world. We understand that he hasn’t a second to lose and must make the best decisions he can. His lack of foresight (conveyed by Robert Pattinson’s skillful performance) is no longer a flaw—it’s the reality given his situation.
While hiding out, Connie watches a reality crime show and the nightly news (the only way he has of monitoring the police who are in pursuit). The people he sees are very much like him. The difference is that the film we’re watching doesn’t treat his character as a sideshow spectacle to boost ratings by giving us a vicarious thrill of violence and scandal. The film borrows some of the techniques of sensationalist television only to expose them as forms of moralistic judgement (the mores of the petit bourgeoisie) that hide in plain sight.
Good Time therefore gives us an unflinchingly honest look at socially-marginalized people, whose lives, outside of sensationalist media coverage, are invisible. It’s a boldly ethical move for the Safdie brothers to make.
And it surely must’ve been tempting to film an emotional scene of Connie’s reuniting with Nick. That doesn’t happen—we’re only told that Connie “did the right thing” by, after being caught, absolving Nick of the responsibility for the crime.
The film ends with Nick’s trying to reconnect socially. Maybe it was his story all along—considering the film begins and ends with him. Good Time shows us in a memorable and powerful way that asking questions about narrative can be at the same time questions about taking ethical responsibility for how people’s lives are represented.