A Pitiless Heist Movie

A Pitiless Heist Movie

The one thing you can’t do is look away from Benny and Josh Safdie’s new film.


So much has been written by now about Dunkirk that I hesitate to add my own bit. Better to jump to a film that’s more of the moment, such as Good Time, by Benny and Josh Safdie. But in case my ideas about the one should somehow apply to the other, I’ll pause to think about Dunkirk’s Christopher Nolan, the Dr. Feelbad of blockbuster directors.

“Doctor,” because he’s forever displaying a quasi-scientific expertise in warping cinematic space-time. “Feelbad,” because he never lets a hero sail into the higher dimensions without carrying a ballast of guilt. Four interlocking levels of dreamland in Inception weren’t enough to keep Leonardo DiCaprio from being pulled down toward the memory of his dead wife. The vortex of a black hole in Interstellar didn’t tug at Matthew McConaughey as strongly as his grief at having abandoned his daughter. As for poor Christian Bale, we’ve all seen how Nolan made him batty.

Dunkirk is Nolan’s first movie based on real events, but the emotional ground he gives his characters hasn’t changed. His British soldiers are surrounded by Nazi forces on the beach while engulfed within by their sense of failure. Maybe they’ll be rescued from the first trap, if they’re lucky enough to dodge the Luftwaffe dive-bombers, but they can’t escape the second. Survival will mean living in the humiliation of defeat; and so they’re no better than they should be, behaving as if shame is already lost.

Anglo-American World War II movies don’t always portray the Allied combat troops as brave and morally clean (have you watched The Big Red One recently?), but Dunkirk is extraordinary for depicting its soldiers, almost without exception, as scheming, cowardly, and mutually vicious. The best of them, plucked out of a wreck in the middle of the Channel, turns out to be madly violent; the worst is ready to murder one of his fellows to buy another five minutes of oxygen for himself. I’m speaking only of the enlisted men. The officers, when on shore, remain as stoic as Kenneth Branagh, who mostly stares into the distance chewing the inside of his lips, and in the air are as gallant as Tom Hardy, who may run out of fuel but not the resolve to shoot down one more Jerry. I suppose superior breeding has freed the officers from the conviction of worthlessness that afflicts common soldiers and even the civilians who set out to the rescue in their little boats. The teenager who insists on sailing with Mark Rylance (the very picture of English middle-class decency, going to war in his tie and sweater vest) wants to help evacuate the troops because he feels he’s never done well at anything. Scarcely into puberty, he’s already haunted by failure.

In making this observation about Nolan’s liking for ostentatious gloom, I don’t pretend to dismiss the undeniable grandeur of Dunkirk, or to diminish the cheers that the movie elicits when its soundtrack at last cues up the Elgar. I’m curious, though, how this very astute filmmaker guessed that his audience would want Dunkirk’s happy ending to have the character of a redemption, almost of grace, freely given to sinful characters.

You might say that Nolan is just doing what’s worked for him before, and has made him Steven Spielberg’s successor as a director of blockbusters perceived to be serious. With Dunkirk, he’s also followed Spielberg’s example by giving world-historical authority to his characteristic manner. But clearly more is at play here than one man’s sensibility and wiles. Although the moviegoing public, which used to be almost universal, now amounts to a large niche market, even for the likes of the Dark Knight series, Nolan evidently has tapped into a general yearning in the culture, which finds satisfaction in elaborately crafted pictures full of guilty brooding.

What might a Venn diagram show about the intersection of Nolan’s fans with another significant niche audience—the most commonly encountered followers of Donald J. Trump (torch-carrying neo-Nazis excepted for the moment)? So far as I can tell, they feel sinned against rather than sinful and are searching not for grace but victory, so you might imagine their mathematical set would scarcely overlap with Nolan’s. And yet, with Dunkirk playing on more than 4,000 screens in the United States and taking in more than $154 million so far, there must be a few Trump voters in the audience. When I ask myself what they receive for their money, I think of them going to Dunkirk for a dose of the martial valor they crave (in this case, a pure white valor) and getting, as a bonus, a release from their widely reported resentment.

They, too, claim to feel isolated and abandoned, and, also like the soldiers at Dunkirk, they have an enemy to hate: the cheating, oppressive liberal elite. But maybe, in the dead of night, when the sleepless mind tallies bills past due and opportunities unseized, the Trumpists’ self-righteousness falters—at which point failure might settle on them, as on the trapped soldiers, with the weight of guilt. If so, I can imagine how the conclusion of Dunkirk would do something much less abstract for these viewers than provide, say, an interesting redefinition of heroism. It would give them a vicarious solace they can scarcely admit they need.

As for the service that Dunkirk might perform for non-Trumpists, multiple articles in The New York Times tell me everything I need to know. The theme of self-blame never enters the discussion. The pieces focus instead on technique (how the plan of the film was devised, the scenes directed, the music composed), commerce (how the film has triumphed at the box office), and morality (how the good guys hold on and prevail, in an abiding contest with evil). These emphases suggest to me that the authors identify with Nolan—the fortune-making, craft-mastering winner—far more than with his suffering characters. The admiration expressed for the darkness of his vision comes off in this context as mostly a sign of approval for his having a conscience—as do all Times readers, of course.

No wonder, then, that Dunkirk has been a hit, if Nolan has figured out how to appeal in such different ways to different groups of people. The praise I’ve read from the Times writers and other mainstream cinephiles makes good sense to me; but I think I prefer the response I’ve intuited among Trump’s followers. If I’ve read them correctly, it goes deeper; it sweats out the underlying motivations in the film with more earnestness than Nolan himself may have brought to them.

Don’t get me wrong—I despise Trump, and I’m none too happy with the voters who put him in office. But sometimes wrongheaded people discover more worth in a picture than the right-thinkers do.

That said, nobody of any political persuasion will find a whiff of redemption in Benny and Josh Safdie’s acidly titled Good Time.

The sole available point-of-view character is reprehensible beyond even the lowest schemer in Dunkirk. The stakes are lower, too—ultimately life-or-death, but needlessly, inexcusably so, and on a level that’s anecdotal rather than world-historical. Abandon the comparison with Nolan and look instead to the far more appropriate example of Martin Scorsese, and Good Time will still seem brutish to the point of futility. Like Mean Streets, it’s a tale of petty crime and bleak family relations in the least picturesque neighborhoods of contemporary New York—but with neither the portrayal of a deeply lived subculture nor the invitation to empathize with a conflicted, striving character. It’s mean, all right—also myopic, pitiless, and deliberately ugly, and it leaves you with no moral. I like it a lot.

Set for the most part in Queens—an obstacle course of pizza parlors, bail bondsmen’s offices, dingy hospitals, and dingier side streets crowded with suffocating houses—Good Time unfolds mostly over a single evening and night, in the aftermath of a bungled bank robbery. Connie (Robert Pattinson) has half-flattered, half-bullied his adoring, mentally challenged brother Nick (Benny Safdie) into joining him in the stickup, which fairly crackles with tension, and also with the sound of your hair turning white at Connie’s incompetence. This mastermind apparently hasn’t watched any bank-heist movies and so doesn’t know it’s a mistake to let the teller fill your sack with unexamined objects from a back room. Also, don’t call an Uber for your getaway car. You’ll just be exasperated when the driver circles the block and shows up late.

The result: Most of the cash is lost, Nick is captured (after being injured), and Connie finds himself scuffling for bail money for his brother, rather than running out of state with a nest egg. The rest amounts to the story of a long improvisation, in which the sly and sometimes violent Connie lies, wheedles, scams, and bludgeons his way from very bad to much worse. Though heartless, he tries to extract money from a girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) by pretending to be hurt by her lack of sympathy for his brother. Though utterly self-centered, he gets his hands on a car by faking a warm interest (including sexual) in a bored teenage girl (Taliah Webster). The closest Connie comes to being forthright is when he hectors a hapless small-time criminal encountered along the way (Buddy Duress), in a nasty echo of the way he dominates Nick. At least with his brother, there’s a hint of caring and responsibility. With the schnook, Connie is nothing but vehement in asserting the superiority of his brains and entrepreneurial spirit, which have served him so well during the long night.

The Safdies are smart filmmakers—so much so that they and co-screenwriter Ronald Bronstein have twisted the plot to make synopsis unthinkable—but, for the most part, they hide their art. They make no bravura gestures, and, except for one or two panoramic establishing shots, they also reject the picturesque, keeping cinematographer Sean Price Williams’s camera on top of the characters and tied to the action. The Safdies want gut-deep immediacy from the actors and complete absorption from the audience. The only time they remind you that you’re watching a movie is when they wash a monochromatic light across the shot; and even then the color (usually acrid or bilious) registers more as an emotion than a design choice. Their method, in short, suits their purpose. The better to expose Connie’s cleverness as self-defeating vanity, they avoid doing anything merely clever of their own.

This means that the movie lives or dies with Robert Pattinson’s performance as Connie, the con man who fools no one for very long, except his brother. A former tween-and-teen heartthrob who in recent years has fled as far from conventional romantic leads as has his Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart, Pattinson moves through Good Time in a kind of slip-swagger, teetering in perfect balance on the edge of menace and buffoonery. His Connie would be beautiful if he weren’t so revolting, frightening if he weren’t so manifestly feeble. I believed every second of Pattinson’s performance as much as I believed in the bathroom-sink bleach job that Connie gives himself as a disguise. His head glares with a falseness that can’t be faked.

And that, more than any disparity of scale and budget, is what separates the Safdies from Christopher Nolan. They don’t use characters to trouble your conscience and then relieve it, or to bind you to some awful difficulty and then let you loose. The Safdies leave you free from the start—to judge Connie or thrill to him, recoil or be allured, hate or mock.

The one thing you can’t do is look away.

As a child in India’s Gujarat state, Rahul Jain played in a textile mill that his family had the good fortune to own. As a young man studying at the California Institute of the Arts, he returned to India to explore another of these throbbing, fuming, cavernous factories and shoot a documentary perhaps only he could have made: Machines.

An exceptional first feature, combining impeccably assured image-making, deep empathy, and a muckraking spirit, Machines takes you on an extended tour through the fluorescent-and-concrete maze of the factory and introduces you to the routine of the workers who were willing to speak candidly with Jain. Many are migrants, who traveled hundreds of miles from other states, after borrowing money from local lenders, to work 12-hour shifts, sometimes back-to-back. The average daily pay—the equivalent of perhaps $3—is just enough for cheap food and chewing tobacco to keep the boys and men working around the clock, often without even a pittance left over to send to their families. Union organizers step forward from time to time but then have a tendency to die.

Talk about being trapped with no expectation of rescue. Do these workers feel exploited? One of the older men, sitting on the floor, denies it. No one made him come to the factory, he tells Jain, perhaps a little sharply; he’s done this to himself. But later in the film, workers crowded into a courtyard confront Jain with more heat, predicting that he’ll feel bad for them, take their pictures, and then go away. What, they’d like to know, will he actually do for them?

Having watched Machines, I’m sure he’ll think of something. Jain has already opened the lives of these workers to untold audiences, in a work of formal integrity and sometimes surprising beauty. I want to see what other future these proud, strong, wretched people might have, and I want to see whatever film Jain makes next.

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