‘Good Time’: layered character writing

Tyler Manning

Robert Pattinson in Good Time (2017)
Tyler Manning

A good sense of direction. Great acting. Beautiful cinematography. They all enhance a movie. However, none are as crucial to holding a movie together as character.

Character is the avenue by which the writer gets the film’s message across. A good character can tell us a lot about life. We, as an audience, see the negative ramifications of various actions through characters making mistakes. When characters learn from their mistakes and better themselves as people, the audience learns with them. Every story should have a message and to get that across it needs to have well defined character. A story without character isn’t a story at all. It is merely a concept. A distant idea with no emotional connection.

Take for instance the most recent Star Wars movie: “Rogue One.” Although the premise is compelling (a daughter gone rogue after the separation of her and her father joins forces with the rebellion to fight against an evil space empire), the movie failed to establish its main characters, resulting in a flat, un-engaging film. No amount of good cinematography, special effects or Star Wars iconography can replace good character.

A great example of movie that establishes a good character is this year’s release “Good Time,” directed by Benny and Josh Safdie, starring Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie and Jennifer Jason Leigh. The film is about Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) who, after a bank heist gone wrong, must come up with $10,000 to get his mentally handicapped brother, Nick, out of jail.

John Truby, in his book, The Anatomy of Story, outlines steps on how character should be built and I would like to use this outline to show how writers, Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie, create the character of Connie Nikas in “Good Time.”

“Make your lead character constantly fascinating. Any character who is going to drive the story has to grab and hold the audience’s attention at all times… Whenever your lead character gets boring, the story stops,” Truby said. Connie’s fascination comes from his unpredictability.

Connie is established early on in the film as a pathological liar. It is through his own manipulation of his mentally handicapped brother, Nick, that gets Nick arrested in the first place. He realizes that if he is to get any support in raising the money needed to bail his brother out of jail, Connie must lie about how his brother got into jail, in the first place. He is not a reliable source of information and the audience recognizes that early on, making him more engaging to watch. There is no way in predicting what he is going to say or do because he is not morally bound, nor compelled, to accomplish his goals by telling the truth. As the film moves forward, his relationships between other characters are solely based on lies, thus forcing the audience to be more involved in paying attention to the details.

The next step in character building is “Make the audience identify with the character, but not too much.” According to Truby, “Audiences identify with a character based on two elements: his desire and the moral problem he faces… Desire drives the story because the audience wants the hero to be successful. The moral problem is the deeper struggle of how to live properly with others and is what the audience wants the hero to solve.”

To identify with Connie the audience the audience must see his desire and his moral problem.

Desire is the end goal that the character wants to achieve. It is what drives the entire narrative of the story. Connie’s desire is a noble one: raise enough money to bail his brother out of jail before he is seriously injured by the other inmates. The audience can empathize with his sentiment. He is solely responsible for his brother’s current position, so the guilt associated with doing something wrong is transferable to audience. We all know what it is like to make a mistake and want to fix it. The urgency of his desire also lies in the danger being in jail poses to his brother because of his mental state. Being in an unforgiving environment with a handicap makes his brother more vulnerable. The longer Nick is there, the more danger he is in. An audience can empathize with this because they also have people that they care for and would do anything to protect.

Connie’s moral problem lies in his inability to be transparent. The film clearly states that his manipulative nature is a problem that is preventing him from growing and changing as a person. He is given many opportunities to be honest with people, yet he constantly chooses to lie. The more he lies, the worse his situation gets, only digging him deeper and deeper into despair.

Truby said, “Make the audience empathize with your hero, not sympathize…. If you show the audience why the character chooses to do what he does, they understand the cause of the action (empathy) without necessarily approving of the action itself (sympathy).”

Writers, Bronstein and Safdie, do a number of things to make the audience empathize with why Connie chooses to do what he does, without approving of the actions he takes.

First, the writers provoke empathy by establishing a deep emotional connection of Connie and his desire. In the beginning of the movie, the writer’s establish Connie and Nick’s relationship. Nick and Connie both live with their grandmother, who has reportedly had a history of abusing Nick. In consequence, Connie has assumed the role as a protector of Nick. In his mind, he is the only one truly looking out for Nick. Although many of his intentions and actions are motivated by selfishness, it is clear that Connie has a genuine love for his brother. The audience finds empathy in Connie’s motivation because they have seen what Nick means to him.

Everyone has made a mistake and most of us, at one point or another, have lied to cover it up. What differentiates this from sympathy is the extreme action Connie takes to reverse his situation.

The final step that Truby outlines is “Give your hero a moral as well as a psychological need… by giving your hero a moral as well as a psychological need, you increase the effect the character has in the story and therefore increase the story’s emotional power.”

Moral weaknesses stem from the psychological. Connie’s psychological weakness is his immaturity. What comes from his psychological weaknesses is his moral weakness, he is selfish and manipulative. His psychological need is that he needs to emotionally mature. His moral need is to understand the weight of his actions and to more considerate of others.

I should also put emphasis of the director and actor’s roles in translating this character to the big screen. Yes good character writing is essential is producing a good movie, but it is also important for the character to be properly portrayed visual.

Director Benny and Josh Safdie and actor Robert Pattinson do an incredible job in capturing the essence of this character. Acting is a two-man job. It is not only the responsibility of the actor to portray the role but it is also the responsibility of the director in guiding the actor’s performance to fit their vision.

Robert Pattinson deserves at least an Oscar nomination for this role. It is clear that he has an extensive understanding of the character and beautifully portrays Connie in the film. He is captivating in every scene and truly elevates the film.

“Good Time” is a perfect example of how to create a layered, dimensional character that the audience can empathize and identify with despite being an immoral selfish person. It shows just how far a person is willing to go cover up his mistakes and teaches the audience a lesson about immaturity, manipulation, and accountability. This is an engaging character study that exhibits excellent character writing in execution.

Rating: 9/10