The Oscar-nominated Somali immigrant Barkhad Abdi brought a non-professional’s awkward conviction to his modern-day Somali pirate line “I’m the captain now” in Tom Hanks’s Captain Phillips by unexpectedly tapping in to menacing hip-hop satire. Now Abdi makes an equally inauspicious return to the screen in the neo-noir Good Time, playing an immigrant working as a night-shift security guard at an off-season amusement park. He catches the film’s white punk hero, Constantine (Connie) Nikas (Robert Pattinson), who has jumped the park’s fence searching for a hidden drug stash. This time Abdi threatens, “If I find you, I’m gonna kick your ass.” But Good Time’s neo-noir joke is on him.
It’s an all-American turn-about: Somali rent-a-cop and Greek-immigrant wastrel confront each other in the off-season carnival that is our post-Obama nation. The cinematic abomination Good Time is the brainstorm of Josh and Ben Safdie, brothers raised on the cynicism of late-20th-century American movies. The two are now celebrated Cannes Film Festival veterans — the new golden boys of Millennial film culture. The Safdies have seen a lot, make it raw (unlike Tarantino, who filters his movies through ironic cruelty), and turn it into an unapologetic docu-comedy of low-life, cultural autism.
From the opening scene of dull-witted Nick struggling with a language test given by a social worker (he’s perplexed by the phrase “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch”), Good Time demonstrates contemporary film culture’s moral shift. Old homilies don’t matter. Nick’s problem with sentence interpretation is exactly what discombobulates the Safdies and most modern cineastes, including reviewers: They no longer interpret human experience, but live life — and movies — as blithely as flipping through comic books or watching television while distracted. (One of the films the Safdies cite as an influence is Miguel Piñero’s 1977 Short Eyes, but the Safdies take Pinero’s remarkable insight into convict culpability merely as incitement to riot.)
This interpretation problem is local, but it might as well be global. That’s what Abdi’s performance illustrates. He’s part of America’s new, open-borders class of replacement workers. Immigrants who, given political preference, have climbed over the backs of slave descendants and earlier migrants (such as Connie’s pothead teenybopper hook-up), yet who still become part of a criminal underclass. No matter how many Hollywood icons the Safdies reference in interviews (they’re like the hero of Baby Driver — there’s an idiotic mixed-tape playing in their heads of the worst Michael Mann, Scorsese, Tarantino, and Frederick Wiseman movies, none interpreted or understood, just recycled without feeling), their outstanding achievement in Good Time comes down to Abdi’s strange scariness. His dark-skinned, emaciated, wide-eyed oddity is brutalized by Connie and then made pathetic; he’s photographed in black light so that he has a purple-cobalt glow. Abdi literally becomes a freak from the “Romance Apocalypse” exhibit at Queens’ Adventureland.
Connie’s odyssey goes nowhere. When not guiding his half-wit brother, he’s dragging along a “hilariously” abducted slacker, improvising through the night to show off his own misdirected genius.
“I think I was a dog in another life,” Connie says, which is the lowest estimation of self by any American movie protagonist so far this millennium. Measured against unfortunate newcomer Abdi, Connie is the Safdies’ fantasy of themselves enjoying white hipster privilege. With Good Time, they put Vice-TV, Spike-TV cynical hipster trash on the big screen. At one point, Connie watches a reality-TV show in which a deranged woman attacks cops and falls on her own knife. “I don’t want to see them justify this,” he groans, which makes no sense, though it fits in with hipster dissent. The Safdies take no clear political position; they merely provoke.
Although they’re natives of Queens, New York’s most multiethnic borough, the Safdies show less sentimentality than Dito Montiel’s Queens-based films (such as the estimable A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints).
Their cynicism doesn’t reflect the fear of a new administration but the insincere enthusiasm and hollowed-out optimism that resulted from the past eight years.
Brother Nick is last seen in therapy responding to the command “Cross the room if you’ve ever been accused of something you didn’t do.” Every aggrieved social group in Obama’s America can relate to that. It substitutes for Piñero’s self-criticism in Short Eyes.
The choice of Pattinson, vampire of the Twilight franchise, to represent hipster misanthropy — he fakes a flat New Yawk accent — betrays the Safdies’ ghoulishness. They don’t really care about Abdi’s fate; their multiculturalism favors the weary, devious, blond-dyed Connie/Pattinson via a long, final close-up that melds the specters of James Holmes, Dylan Roof, and Eminem.
That nihilistic, romanticized close-up made me realize something every film lover should dread: Jonathan Demme — the late, big-hearted American director whose career peaks (Citizen’s Band, Something Wild, Stop Making Sense, Beloved, Rachel Getting Married) celebrated American democracy as varied human interaction, threat, compassion, and love — has apparently left no trace on the Safdies’ hipsterism. Good Time recycles a term of prison lingo into a culture-of-depravity thrill ride. After Obama, Demme’s vision of what cinema and society can be is over.
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.