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Obsession and Class from Coast to Coast: Good Time and Ingrid Goes West

In case any of you are worried, this isn’t a thinkpiece connecting these two movies. I know nothing about New York or LA as I’ve spent my entire life in the South and have spent a grand total of 5 days in both cities combined. I just wanted a “smart” way to connect two movies that I’ve seen and wanted to talk about because the content gods demand it.

Without further adieu…

Good Time

Good Time is less a movie than an adrenaline shot straight into the bloodstream. The Safdie Brothers have crafted a breathless descent into the underworld built out of tension and neon underlined by pulsing synth and captured with a camera that can’t seem to calm down.

It’s the story of a day and a night. A botched bank robbery lands Constantine Nikas (Robert Pattinson) in hot water as his mentally handicapped brother Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie) is put in jail. The money Constantine got is basically useless (thanks to a dye pack), so he has to find 10,000 dollars in a night to get his brother bailed out and back under his care.

Good Time is the kind of propulsive and brutal thriller that only works like it does because it has a human heart beating at its core. This is an unfliching film, undoubtedly. It’s a grimy underbelly, an urban center that’s sprawling and unromantic, a poor side of New York that you don’t really see in films more often concerned with the artists and the wealthy of the city.

Yet, this is a movie that has an undeniable empathy for the people just trying to get along, just making something out of whatever they can find. Constantine is a criminal and a destructive person, ruining things for basically everyone he touches. But there’s no malice, he doesn’t carry a gun, everything feels like an animal lashing out for survival. And at the core, there’s a care, wanting his brother to be okay and healthy in the way that only he thinks is right.

That’s the animating impulse of Good Time, seeing what happens when fundamentally decent people are put into circumstances that make them into criminals and bad people. What survival really does take.

That animating impulse is also at the core of a career-best performance for leading man Robert Pattinson. His Constantine is constant, nervous energy, barreling forward constantly through every space, controlling and trying to control the situation in the hopes that he can finally pull his life together. Far from his normal reserve, Pattinson is all twitch, following along with the propulsive energy of the film and occupying every bit with breathless abandon. His final shot is a small masterpiece.

Credit must also be given to Benny Safdie, who takes on a tricky role (one that perhaps should go to an actual disabled actor) and does it with far more grace and sensitivity than anyone could expect. A man who just wants to live his life and do his best, who wants someone to care, Safdie pulls out a phenomenally reserved performance balanced against Pattinson’s constant motion.

It’s a film that balances those ideas. Moments of silence followed by moments of violence, all lit by neon. There’s not a blacklight or tube that the Safdie and Cinematographer Sean Price Williams don’t love and it gives the film an eerie alien glow, the feeling of looking into a world that isn’t your own. The score by composer Oneohtrix Point Never contributes, a beautiful and deafening synth that overwhelms the senses. This is a movie that patently refuses to back off you until the bitter end.

Outside of its final shots, the movie has trouble sticking the landing and has issues pulling its meaning. There’s also a thinkpiece to be had on its sterotype-based women characters. Good Time‘s never-stop, never-let-up, never-surrender imagery makes it hard to let that sink to deep in while you’re watching.

Grade: A-

Ingrid Goes West

Like if The Social Network was a cringe comedy instead of a sickeningly prophetic drama (that and Silicon Valley and you get all the problems with the tech industry octopus), Ingrid Goes West basically is one of the few movies to talk about “kids and their technology these days” without feeling technophobic, without feeling outdated already, but actually managing to dig under the surface of the place that public social media exhibition has taken in our lives.

After the death of her mother, an incident at the wedding of a friend/acquaintance/probably total stranger, and a stay in a mental hospital, Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) decides to make a change and move out West to Los Angeles, California! Of course, it’s to follow and become best friends with Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), an Instagram influencer, so it’s not all necessarily better.

Ingrid Goes West is something of a cringe drama. There’s plenty of dry, sharp comedy, but it’s not so much playing the cringe for comedy. This isn’t necessarily something like The Office. The cringe is revealing, the discomfort is about the people living through it. It’s like pulling your fingernails, it’s designed to make you talk.

Aubrey Plaza has never had a role that, while being slightly out of her wheelhouse, seemed more perfect for her. Rather than playing someone who doesn’t give a fuck, Ingrid gives entirely too many fucks. She’s desperate for approval and there’s this underlying sinister note to basically everything Plaza does that makes her a great villain and an even better broken person.

Plaza owns every bit of this film, scary and deeply relatable and making a frustratingly undynamic character feel like she’s going through the gamut, but by no means is she the only strong performance. Olsen is pitch-perfect casting as Taylor Sloane and she does a great job with the material given. O’Shea Jackson Jr. playing Batman-obsessed Dan, her landlord and confusing crush, is pitch-perfect, is playing the one truly decent human being in the film and projecting every ounce of that in a bonafide star turn.

There’s a lot to admire here, a strong and critical look at social media without indulging in technophobia or kids these days-ism is rare enough. I just wish director/writer Matt Spicer and writer David Branson Smith might have pulled a little more out of the material.

The raw materials are great and well-crafted, but it never quite feels pulled into a cohesive whole. The story goes in and implies a lot of different directions, but they never really end up going anywhere. Ingrid is incredibly well-explored and Dan is given plenty of nuance, but Taylor ends up one note for most of the movie, really underplaying Olsen’s skill. There’s an inherent frustration to a movie where no one learns, but it feels difficult to find the coherent ideology underlying everything.

Grade: B+

 

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Wind River is a gritty directorial debut that could have used a stronger hand

Exchanging the delirious heat for the mythic snow does little to dull the quickly notable Taylor Sheridan brand of crime story. Through Hell or High Water and Sicario, Sheridan has become famous for his stories of the frontier and how quickly that frontier destroys human decency, his stories of procedure and his stories of the places that people live away from most eyes.

Wind River trades on all of that, though this time there is no filter between Sheridan’s writing and the film we see on screen. This is Sheridan’s directorial debut, which may not necessarily be to the film’s benefit. Removed from Denis Villeneuve’s haunting precision or the quiet desperation that David Mackenzie brought, Sheridan’s shaky directorial foundation finds Wind River falling far shorter than its predecessors.

Set on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, the story starts with the body of Natalie (Kelsey Chow) found barefoot in the snow by US Fish and Wildlife Service Agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner). FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is brought on to investigate, as the elements and the violence and despair visited on the Reservation by the elements and by the sins of America begin to consume the investigation.

Much of what has worked about Sheridan’s writing in the past is still fantastic here. The sense of environment is immaculate, the specific nuances of Wyoming feel as real and tangible as his Texas does. Isolated and lonely but something beautiful in the snow and in the pain. It’s the frontier, but one both mythical and rare. The movie’s compassion to the Native Americans is absolutely admirable, if a little clumsy.

His sense of procedure is also still incredibly intact, and playing even more of a role here. Sheridan’s interest is clear without the filter of other director’s interests. It contributes to that tangibility, a well-researched run through what form these things may actually take. Concerns about what the cause of death is listed as, getting the right back up, whose jurisdiction a given area is sounds boring, but Sheridan has a penchant for pulling the emotion and tension out of these decisions.

And whether it’s his work or just good casting, Wind River pulls strong performances out of just about everyone. Renner and Olsen have strong duo chemistry and each managed to play big and emotional without ever losing the gritty thread of the story. Most of the supporting cast are good to “does their job” but real MVP work is done by Gil Birmingham, the Native actor who plays the father of the murdered girl. Birmingham’s performance is heartbreaking at every step and between this and his scene-stealing in Hell or High Water, one wonders why Hollywood doesn’t seek to snap him up.

One also wonders if perhaps Wind River chose the wrong protagonist.

Where Wind River really begins to fall down on the weakness of a first time director. As strong as Sheridan’s writing is, Villeneuve and Mackenize’s sensibilities both provided a specific filter. Both are excessively visual directors in the subtlest ways, letting movements speak for monologues and moments speak for scenes.

Sheridan’s visual eye simply isn’t as strong. His vistas feel a little less grand, his tense handheld close-ups feel more shaky than chaotic. His action staging often has great surprise, but rarely manages the sustained tension of something like Sicaro‘s border crossing.

He also just isn’t great at making the story connections yet. His raw material is strong, but he can’t bring it coherently together. His thematics rarely feel connected (there’s a thread about Cory and Martin [Gil Birmingham] and their parallel children that is brought up and dropped from time to time). There’s also a lot of clunk that feels like material that would be trimmed by more experienced hands. Much of Wind River is told in monologue and has its ideas stated openly.

Wind River is still a cut-above crime film and perhaps it seems unfair to compare it so heavily to its predecessors. But when your material is so often shaped so expertly, it seems right to note when the potential is lost.

Grade: B-