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‘Good Time’ is a great movie about an awful truth

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We often feel like the world has gone horribly wrong somehow, and this film confirms that yes, it has.

According to Robert Pattinson of Twilight fame, it was a production still that sparked his interest in working with New York filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie. He hadn’t seen one minute of their work, but based on that one image, wrote them an email saying that it was meant to be. “We sort of agreed to do a movie which didn’t exist, based on nothing.”

That movie, the independent thriller Good Time, is in many ways a product of that first encounter. It’s spontaneous, energetic, and daring, a first-class cinematic work fueled by a mad dash of a storyline, visceral camera work, and an electrifying synth soundtrack. But there might be more to this post-modern crime caper than meets the eyes and ears.

The film opens with Nick, a mentally challenged man (brilliantly played by co-director Benny) in session with a well-meaning therapist. Nick goes through the motions but is clearly afflicted by inner turmoil. A question about a cooking pan draws a piece of that turmoil out – a tear rolls down his hardened face, and he recalls being verbally abused his grandmother. When Nick’s brother Connie, a street-wise, small-time hustler (the equally brilliant Pattinson) bursts into the room to rescue him, we feel a strange sense of relief. But it won’t last long; Connie’s exit strategy is for them to rob a bank and take off for a farm in Virginia.

Was this the first in a series of crimes? What awaits them in Virginia? And what happened to their parents? Backstory is in short supply, but in a way, all we need to know is right there: these brothers are in a desperate way, and they’re resorting to desperate measures to escape it all.

But the robbery goes horribly wrong – and while Connie is able to escape, Nick ends up on Rikers Island, where he is almost instantly a target of violence. Connie, the George to Nick’s Lennie, then embarks on a nightmarish all-nighter to find the cash to bail him out, and when that fails, to sneak into a hospital to break him out. Suffice it to say that drugs and a string of other crimes enter the picture – and things continue to plummet, and fast, until they hit rock bottom.

Good Time is a great movie about an awful night, which is significant. It would be very difficult to watch this man’s descent into degradation and desperation and conclude that things are just hunky-dory in the world. It’s just a story, of course, but there are stories like this everywhere. We often feel like the world has gone horribly wrong somehow, and a film that faces this wrongness so unblinkingly reminds us that we’re not wrong. It has.

Still, we’d like to distance our respectable lives from this carnival ride of bad judgment. But the coda to the film unlocks a universal truth about Connie’s night. The song, titled “The Pure and the Damned,” features a later-Johnny Cash-like Iggy Pop pondering love, death, and damnation:

Love, make me clean
Love, touch me, cure me

The pure always act from love
The damned always act from love

Every day I think about untwisting and untangling these strings I’m in
And to lead a pure life
I look ahead at a clear sky
Ain’t gonna get there
But it’s a nice dream, it’s a nice dream

Death, make me brave
Death, leave me swinging

The pure always act from love
The damned always act from love
The truth is an act of love

These spiritually-tinged lyrics reminded me of a reflection by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton:

No matter how man loves, from the moment that he loves – whether he’s loving rightly or wrongly – he’s doing that thing for which he was created. And if he’s doing it wrong, well that’s just too bad, because it means that his whole creation becomes meaningless. But if he’s doing it right, then the whole reason for his creation is fulfilled. But whether he loves rightly or wrongly, he’s got to love, because he’s made for love, and he has to love.

In a way, this is what Good Time is really about. Connie loved rightly in pursuing his brother’s good. But in both Connie and the environment that created Connie – the breakdown of his family, the dog-eat-dog ethos of his city, the spiritual malaise of his society – we find a sea of distorted loves: love of experience, money, power, and ultimately the self. Those wrong loves fuel his sociopathic manipulation and plunge him deeper into the meaninglessness of mere survival. It’s what keeps him from his “pure life,” symbolized in that dream of some far-off Virginia farm.

“I think something very important is happening,” Connie declares at one point, “and it’s deeply connected to my purpose.” Whether he means this or not, the heartbreaking thing is that this night amounts to very little, and his purpose remains hidden from his frenzied mind. But there’s still time, and lots of it – and by the grace of God, he’ll find it.

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