Ignore the Dumb Title: Good Time Has Much to Say

GOOD TIME (2017)
Directed by Josh and Bennie Safdie
A24 Pictures, 101 minutes, R (violence, language, sexuality)

This overlooked film was nominated for the Palme D’Or and then disappeared in a flash. That’s puzzling as much of it is quite good. It is, however, encumbered with a terrible and misleading title. The moment one says, “bank robbery film” and “good time,” most folks will conjure images of a goofy slapstick caper film. Good Time is a caper film, but it’s more like Of Mice and Men mashed with Dog Day Afternoon than cheap laughs fare such as Going In Style or Quick Change.

We know we’re into something different from the opening scene. Nick Nikas (co-director Bennie Safdie) sits vacant-eyed across from a psychiatrist who unsuccessfully tries to engage him in a word association test. It’s not that Nick is being uncooperative, it’s that the exercise is too hard for him. Into the office bursts his brother “Connie” (Constantine), who yells at the shrink, tears up his notes, and leads his brother out of the office.

We next meet the brothers wearing rubber masks and trying to rob a bank. It goes wrong and they flee, with Connie (Robert Pattinson) yelling out instructions to his brother. Connie gets away, but Nick is apprehended when he runs straight through a plate glass door. From there we switch to Connie’s attempt to raise $10,000 for his brother’s bail, as he is worried that Nick will not fare well in jail. He’s right; Nick is badly beaten and hospitalized.

It is here we get the caper part of the film. Connie—his hair hastily cut and bleached, as the robbery money had a dye pack that would have made him easy to identify—spirits a sedated, bandaged, guarded man from the hospital only to discover it’s a different criminal, Ray (Buddy Duress), not Nick. From there it’s a wild night of flight, an encounter with a teenage accomplice (Taliah Webster), a bottle filled with valuable LSD, pursuit through an after-hours amusement park, and more.

Are the caper scenes funny? Let’s just say that the humor is more in the vein of Reservoir Dogs, but without the witty repartee. By the time the night is over, the film is more tragic than goofy, and more violent than slapstick. The overall look of the action is like colorized film noir, the garish offerings of New York City stores and the lurid lights of the amusement park striking us like paintballs between the eyes.

Rex Reed hated all of this and called the film “pointless toxicity” and a “totally surreal look at people in crisis.” My rejoinder is, “Exactly!” minus his “pointless” judgment. We will meet Nick again before the film ends and it slowly dawns on us that virtually every character in the film is handicapped by happenstance. The contrast of bright colors and darkness underscores the gap between the American Dream and the hazy nightmare through which our marginal protagonists fail to negotiate.

I am not usually a Robert Pattinson fan, but he’s very good as Connie, a man much smarter than the people in his family and neighborhood, but not smart enough to overcome the fact that life’s deck is stacked against him. Duress plays to the hilt his part as a small-time hood whose foul mouth is the toughest thing about him. There is also a delicious small part for Jennifer Jason Leigh, Connie’s putative girlfriend, Corey. She shows up acting as dumb as a rock and looking as shabby as a cast-off rag doll, both being pretty close to true (for her character).

Taliah Webster is cool as cucumber as a cynical black kid who says she’s 16, looks 14, and has seen enough to be jaded about cops. Webster’s brief make-out scene with Pattinson—consistent with the plot—raised eyebrows. It may not have been the smartest thing to write into the script given current sensibilities. Then again, it might also be an honest look at what goes on among the underclass. In either case, as good as Webster is, her character needed a deeper back-story to clarify her motives.

Acting wise, Safdie steals our heart. His Nick is not merely mentally challenged; he is so severely handicapped that he is like a loyal dog that follows Connie’s commands. Though Connie loves his brother deeply, he doesn’t run a sheltered workshop, which is precisely what Nick needs. In the end we are left wondering what Nick’s future will be. I could not imagine a bright one for Nick, Connie, Corey, or anyone else in their immediate circle.

Does this sound like a film that should be titled Good Time? It’s far from a screwy comedy, but it’s worth watching for many other reasons. That includes the unsettling ones.

Rob Weir


Warlight a Masterful Triumph

WARLIGHT  (2018)
By Michael Ondaatje
Knopf, 304 pages.

In 1992, Michael Ondaatje won the Man Booker Prize for The English Patient. If there is any justice, he will win again for his doleful and astonishing Warlight.

How to explain what this book is about? I suppose we should start with the title. If you think that wars are over when they officially end, you’ve been fortunate enough never to have experienced one. Ondaatje’s novel opens in “the dimmed warlight” of 1945, just after the war against fascism has been won. That’s cold consolation to a city such as London, where war’s festering wounds and devastation lie all around. So too do secrets, old scores, and not-yet-subdued dangers. The very path to the future is bathed in a hazy half-light.   

Now ask yourself what you know of your parents’ lives before you were self-aware. Would you know about it, if when your mother was a girl, a thatcher’s lad fell through the cottage roof and couldn’t be moved for several weeks? Do you have even the faintest idea of what your father’s job entails? Of what your mother’s education was like? Of what either of them did during a war in which their children were packed off to America and Wales for safekeeping?

The narrator of Warlight is 14-year-old Nathaniel Williams. When he and his older sister Rachel are told that their parents are going away for a year—ostensibly because Unilever has sent their father off to Singapore—they fret over this less than one might think. Neither parent is what you’d call warm, and its unclear if their mother, Rose, cares at all, or if she’s just spectacularly bad at the whole motherhood thing. What is odd, though, is that the children are left in the care of a large-nosed, disheveled man named Walter, whose ideas about domesticity are even more challenged than Rose’s. Nathaniel dubs him The Moth for his furtive ways and soon forgets his actual name. And before you know it, the household is like a London Underground station through which all manner of people pass through. A few are sophisticated, but mostly they are a Dickensian array of misfits, petty criminals, and shadowy figures. The one constant is The Moth’s friend, whom Nathaniel and Rachel call The Darter because, as Walter explains, his welterweight boxing nickname was the Pimlico Darter. It also describes his propensity for dancing on the edge of malfeasance. Not exactly the company with whom you’d expect private school kids to be spending time.

Nathaniel soon begins to skip school and The Darter puts him to work—first at a restaurant, but soon joining him for late night trips down the Thames in a mussel boat to do some “delivery” work that might better be called “smuggling.” Those activities include cargoes of greyhounds for dog tracks, some legit but mostly not. But in the warlight, who’s to notice forged papers? The descriptions of London’s squalid piers and mysterious buildings are alone worth a read. What exactly took place inside a former monastery converted to a factory? How are people getting by amidst the rubble of the Blitz? It’s an exciting time for young Nathaniel, especially after he meets Agnes, who is way beneath him on the social scale, but who both introduces him to the pleasures of the flesh and is the blithe counterpoint to his brooding tendencies. 

I began to presume that Warlight was a coming of age novel. It is, but it’s so much more. I shall say only that it has much to do with the aspects of Rose’s life that an adolescent boy could not imagine, and a 17-yeard-old daughter could only partially infer. It also has to do with nurture, socialization, and early childhood. To what degree are we products of our genes versus the influence of various role models and our striving to invent ourselves? How many times can a single life shift gears? Can we ever truly overcome our essential natures? Though we have our suspicions, these will remain open questions, even when we meet Nathaniel again at age 28.

Michael Ondaatje has written more poetry than novels and it shows—in a good way. They are passages of this book that are read-aloud beautiful—sentences whose prose sparkles nearly as brightly as the provocative observations held within their content and context. I will also tell you something very important: nothing in this book is an incidental throwaway. It’s hard to know what impresses more, Ondaatje’s dreamy prose or plotting worthy of an artisan craftsman. If warlight is akin to the gloaming, this novel illumines like a hot summer sun.

Rob Weir


Shepherd's Hut Like an Aussie Huck Finn

By Tim Winton
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 288 pages.

One of the hardest things for a novelist to do is capture adolescence. Most writers such as 57-year-old Tim Winton, who are accomplished enough to land a novel with a major publishing house, have long ago left behind the confused logic of adolescence. Plus, most of us would have trouble explaining our own coming of age, let alone concoct a convincing story for someone else. In literary terms, there's a reason why Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been, since 1884, the gold standard is depicting the adolescent mind.

Winton's The Shepherd's Hut will, in many ways, remind you of Huckleberry Finn. His 15-year-old protagonist and narrator Jackson ("Jaxie") Clackton is–like Winton– Australian, but the parallels to Huck Finn are striking. Both Huck and Jaxie grew up semi-feral, both have abusive fathers, both cuss a blue streak, neither is much for book learning, and both engage in a great adventure. Jaxie is a bit cruder, but replace the dark Mississippi alluvial soil with the parched red sands of Western Australian, make the dangers more site-specific, and exchange Twain's runaway slave for an exiled priest, and the two tales converge.

This is the case even though The Shepherd's Hut is set in the present. Winton gives the story a timeless quality. Jaxie knows some music and news from television, but he's effectively removed from direct everyday reality. He lives in a dying town in isolated Western Australia, an area roughly four times the size of Texas with under 2.6 million people—more than 75% of whom live in the city of Perth. No city luxuries for Jaxie; his town is so dead that even the IGA has closed. The Clacktons are poor, Jaxie is unpopular in school, and he's a loner–except for a childhood friend Lee (Lee-Ann) who becomes a bit more than that as they move into their teenage years. As if Jaxie's life can't get any worse, his mother dies of cancer, a tragedy that exacerbates his father's drinking and penchant for violence. When Jaxie and Lee are caught in a compromising position, she is carted off to a town far away. Jaxie has to deal with losing Lee, his aunt's withering condemnation of his morals, and a damaged eye courtesy of a clouting from his father—a figure Jaxie despises so much that he calls him "Captain Wankbag."

Jaxie's adventure begins when his father is killed in a freakish garage accident and Jaxie discovers his body. In his 15-year-old mind, he's sure he'll be accused of murdering the old bastard. So Jaxie sets off across the empty expanses with a vague idea of finding his soul mate Lee and living away from people. To give a sense of how little Jaxie has thought this through, he takes a rifle to shoot game, but not many cartridges. He wisely chucks his Vans for hiking shoes, but grabs a plastic cooler instead of water bags, doesn't pack extra clothing, and hastily grabs a butter knife instead of a proper hunting blade. (Trying skinning a kangaroo with a butter knife!)

Winton vividly describes the landscape, but does so in ways that emphasize how it would be seen through 15-year-old eyes. I admired how Winton depicted the vastness of the land and its silent indifference to those upon it. In this sense, Winton makes us feel Jaxie's peril in ways more profound than harrowing escapes from brown snakes, venomous spiders, abandoned mine shafts, stray barbed wire, or monitor lizards. In fact, Winton mainly makes us worry that Jaxie will perish of dehydration or starvation.

One thing that doesn't endanger Jaxie is loneliness. He is relieved to find a water tank in the middle of nowhere, but disgusted to find that there's actually someone living in the old shepherd's hut to which it's attached. Enter Finton MacGillis, an elderly Irishman living alone in a place that Jaxie thinks is overpopulated by a factor of one. We eventually learn that Finton is an exiled priest who talks non-stop, but won't say why he's been transported to his solitary fate. Can Jaxie trust Finton, or is he some sort of conman or pedophile? He thinks he wants nothing to do with Finton, but can't explain why he keeps delaying his quest to find Lee.

What ensues is a strange relationship that makes sense only because Winton so thoroughly probes subjects such as the teenage psyche, the impact of loneliness on adults, and the spiritual reflection unvarnished nature induces. Something dramatic occurs to upset the delicate equilibrium, but that's up to you to discover. It's also up to you to determine if it's compelling. I found it slightly more plot convenient than convincing, but the rest of the book enthralled me.

I highly recommend this book. You will quickly understand why Winton is a four-time winner of the Miles Franklin Award, which is given to the best work on Australian life, and why he's been twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Rob Weir