Film is a visual artform, but music radically alters the tone of those flickering images. In the second edition of Scenes in Sound, we look at Good Time, and the contradictorily compassionate face of toxicity.
In a strictly nuts and bolts sense, music’s role in cinema is often a subservient one. A soundtrack is carried along by the ebbs and flows of the on-screen drama, prodding the audience to let them know when they should be in good spirits and when they should be sour; as Hollywood becomes increasingly lazy, a score literally underscores the emotive notes of a film. Think of the modern blockbuster and try to conjure up a moment where the music genuinely led the direction of a scene, or even a single memorable musical motif. There’s an overriding sentiment in the milquetoast mainstream that soundtracks should be heard, but not listened to.
Two months on from considering how Daniel Lopatin undercut the anxious energy of Uncut Gems (2020), it seemed fitting to further analyse his work on the Safdie Brothers’ previous picture, Good Time (2017). While both films feature abrasive scores by Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never, the purpose of that abrasion is distinct. Where Uncut Gems is giddy, Good Time is dour, and where Uncut Gems saw Lopatin twist anxiety into cosmic purpose, in Good Time he’s far more in tune with the minute-to-minute seat-of-your-pants propulsion. Subservient, however, he is not.
The contradictions begin thick and fast in Good Time, starting with the title itself. Needless to say, spending time with grandiose petty criminal Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) is rarely good for anyone involved, particularly his developmentally disabled brother Nick (Benny Safdie). From the opening scene where Connie barrels into Nick’s therapy session, disrupting his tearful breakthrough, any hopes of personal growth are repeatedly dashed to one side in favour of the salvation represented by material gains. The one true constant of Good Time is that Connie thinks he knows best, even as his ill-fated bank robbery lands his brother in jail on Rikers Island.
Connie’s arrival five minutes into the film is also the moment Lopatin’s burrowing mechanical contraptions start to surface at the edges, a swarm of whirring mites that threaten to erupt from behind the frame at any moment. In the relative safety of the state-appointed therapist’s office, Nick is afforded some silence. From there on in, it’s pure din and discordance; or almost. As Connie enters the therapist’s elevator with Nick, he embraces his brother, sharing sincere words of love as a sudden wave of soaring synths embody Nick’s confused emotional state. We feel Nick’s intense discomfort with his situation, but we also feel Connie’s compassion—it’s a complicated fraternity.
For the most part, though, the Good Time score feels like a hyperreal pastiche of the traditional thriller soundtrack. Where thrillers are normally propelled forward by staccato strings or a ticking-time bomb of a drum beat, Lopatin leans on rounder synthesiser arpeggios lifted straight from a Carpenter flick. Instead of momentum, Lopatin is far more interested in primeval chaos. It’s not the chugging pace that’s the focus, but rather the accumulated debris around it; whirs, ticks and clacks that change register as often as they change tempo. Lopatin’s curated bedlam matches Connie's “control” of any given situation; always fated for disaster, but always with the impression of a cool head. It's absolute carnage, but Lopatin’s clear-eyed intention is likewise never in doubt.
Significantly, the Safdie Brothers’ choose to open and close the film with Nick, not Connie. It’s through his viewpoint that we come to consider the complexities of the fraternal relationship between the two; the blind binding love that distracts from the abusive power dynamic underlying it. We spend the majority of the runtime with Connie as he desperately attempts to free his brother from jail, whether by legitimate or illegitimate means (largely the latter), and in that sense our focus is always on Nick. Any of the discordant tension in Lopatin’s sound design is a reflection of Connie’s pained loss, even if it was ultimately by his own hand.
The scene that reveals the Safdies’ intentions best is also the final one, a strangely muted segment that doesn’t so much provide a breather from the ragged tension as a more heart-rending form of breathlessness. Connie’s endless machinations have landed him in the very jail he sought to break Nick out of, and Nick is free, but without the one constant you sense he’s always relied on. Forced to attend a group therapy session, he’s markedly alone, framed in the same ultra-tight close-up the Safdies have employed throughout the rest of the film, despite being surrounded by the warm smiles of support workers and new peers. It’s the best possible outcome, but it’s distinctly bittersweet.
What makes this sequence quite so affecting is the music accompanying it. It’s still Lopatin at the helm, but this time there’s a clearly demarcated structure and melody provided by a slow progression of piano chords. What’s more, there’s Iggy Pop, crooning in his huskiest voice about the power of love. And yet, this is far from your typical ballad. “The pure always act from love/ The damned always act from love,” sings Iggy on the hook, channelling the blunt energy of Lopatin’s earlier compositions into lyrics that directly lay out the thematic centre of the film; no prizes for guessing who’s the pure and who’s the damned in this scenario.
The piano inches in as we watch the therapy group play an ice breaking game of “Cross the Room”. It’s a simple premise—the session leader states a reason to cross the room, and if you agree with the sentiment, you do. When asked if he likes candy, Nick stares blankly into the void; when asked if he’s ever been in love, his eyes quiver slightly, but when asked if he’s ever struggled with his family, he takes that first step. Twinned with Pop’s assertions that even callous acts are premised on love, however misguided, it’s the sign of someone freeing themselves of blame for the actions of someone they love, or at least taking the first steps towards forgiveness.
Still, it’s rarely that easy. By artifice of this scene playing out under the credits, the last shot we see of Nick before the screen cuts to black is a mid-range close-up that slowly zooms in on his face, but his attention is elsewhere, engaged finally with people who have his best interests at heart rather than the distorted facsimile of them. It’s a poignant shot choice that emphasises the small catharsis afforded by self expression. Inevitably though, this minor freedom is tinged with tragedy, its meaning reshaped by Lopatin’s score.
As we zoom in on Nick the same discordant synths that Lopatin has so repeatedly tied to Connie return to the fore, and we hear Iggy’s final words: “Some day, I swear, we're gonna go to a place where we can do everything we want to.” That promise of heavenly freedom on the horizon echoes Connie’s motive for the robbery in the first place: getting together enough money for him and Nick to start a new life on a farm in Virginia. If your dreams for the future are entwined with someone toxic, then the very act of turning over a new leaf will always bring them to mind—love like that, however pure, is always fated to be damned.