The first day of BFI’s 61st London Film Festival kicked off with a chaotic heist thriller, a syrupy sweet drama on trauma and creativity, and a cinematic re-imagining of a ghostly stage-show.
Unlike last year’s festival, I’ve purposefully made space for longer breaks in between films where possible, resulting in much more time for contemplative analysis of what I’ve seen and less chance of facing huge shifts in tone, genre and style. There’s also the matter of being quietly oblivious to the majority of smaller features playing so a vast number of the films I’ll be seeing throughout the festival will be entirely on a whim.
First in the programme was the intensely chaotic Good Time (B+) from relative newcomers Joshua and Benny Safdie. Starring Robert Pattinson in what is yet another career-best performance, the film contradicts its own title by being a near-relentless stream of uncomfortable misdirection that becomes as exhausting as any real-life all-nighter. Through a series of misunderstandings and narcissistic manipulation, those dragged into Constantin’s (Pattinson) orbit propel the pandemonium from one jaw-clenching moment to the next, rarely buckling under the forward momentum even with a sudden, at-first-glance-inconsequential anecdote from Buddy Duress’s boneheaded felon. The paths that the story takes forever kept me on my and my stomach in knots, so avoiding spoilers and trailers is an absolute must in order to let its insomniac hands grab hold of you fully.
Pattinson is the absolute star here: a greasy, devious, small-time crook who’ll stop at nothing to clear his mentally challenged brother’s name of a crime (Benny Safdie himself: look out for a cheeky nod to his crew status in the penultimate scene), whether by coercing his girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to post bail; taking advantage of the kindness of a teenager (Taliah Webster), or duping a multitude of passers-by with fabricated sob stories, he evolves into a man whose initial motives soon get masked by his desperately violent attempts to stay one-step ahead of the police. Connie’s journey is a breathtaking exercise in futility, one that might not have worked without such an electrifying performance from Pattinson and the authoritative direction from the Safdie brothers, whose visual flairs and intense close-ups – along with Oneohtrix Point Never’s booming synth score – assault the senses in a way that’s purposefully agitating but consistently engaging. Imagine Abel Ferrara’s After Hours, and that goes some way to giving you an inkling of how grimy and scuzzy Good Time is.
Next up was the often good-natured, yet frequently syrupy Brigsby Bear (C+), the feature-length debut from SNL writer and director Drew McCary. Teaming up with his charming SNL collaborator Kyle Mooney and produced by The Lonely Island trio, Mooney’s is a story of a captive whose obsession with a made-up TV show starring the dimension-hopping, evil-squashing bear of the title brings him to the realisation that he must create a finale after it abruptly ends. The film begins as a sort-of light-hearted spin on The Castle of Purity and Dogtooth, with a darkly-comedic introduction into James’s (Mooney) contrived world. At first, we’re every-so-slightly coerced into believing that a potentially cataclysmic event occurred, toxifying the atmosphere and preventing James from experiencing the outside world, only for the truth of his situation to be slowly revealed. It’s a slight reveal, but one that sadly sets the film on a course of predetermined, unavoidable blandness, with some broadly vexing scenes and irritatingly thick character biographies (like Greg Kinnear’s Detective Vogel, whose one-upon-a-time stint at acting causes him to sacrifice his career by stealing evidence for James). This isn’t to say it’s not delightful at times – it’d be an untruth to say I wasn’t charmed – and the whole cast make the most of their conventional roles (it’s always a pleasure seeing Michaela Watkins and Kate Lyn Sheil in any capacity) but if it only had the claws to delve further into its darker themes of child abduction and post-traumatic stress, rather than simply settle for a sweetly optimistic outcome, it might’ve affected me more than it did.
Back in 2010, my partner and I took our seats in the nosebleeds of a Central London theatre to see Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s trilogy of horrors: a stage show with such brash design and thundering sound that it was always something that we wanted to see converted for a different type of audience. Thankfully, now that enough time has passed for me to forget significant details, Ghost Stories (B) was able to make me jump all over again. This time, instead of Nyman’s character holding a lecture, we’re given an actual narrative journey to hold on to. Following the dying wish of a 70s TV personality – with whom Professor Goodman (Nyman) was a devoted fan – Goodman must prove that there was no supernatural element to three case-files that couldn’t be solved with rational thought. Presented as three vignettes (with Goodman’s quest bookending each) Ghost Stories relays each of these fantastical stories with the sensibility of a haunted house: torch batteries fail in the dark; cars break down on deserted roads, and poltergeists fluster skeptics; but it’s in the wraparound reveal that the truly unpleasant horror lurks: a moment so ugly and malicious that all of the clues leading up to it feel horribly rewarding.
Where it does sag a little is in the long-winded revelation at the heart of Goodman’s story: in trying to tie it all together, character progress gave way to a convoluted weirdness, with a literal pulling back of the curtain that was perhaps a bit too theatrical for the screen. The film centers itself with British TV stars (Paul Whitehouse, and Alex Lawther from Black Mirror’s Shut Up and Dance) though aside from Nyman’s cynical role as the paranormal debunker, it’s Martin Freeman who steals every scene he’s in, flitting between anti-Semitic city trader and maniacal raconteur effortlessly. Some of the broader scares worked far better in the theatre setting, though where the film benefitted was with Ole Bratt Birkeland’s photography, turning the rolling hills and sullen interiors of West Yorkshire into gloomy characters of their own. It’s certainly hamstrung by the final act exposition, but it serves up a home-grown high-wire act in such a confident way that even in its goofier moments, it’s still a lot of spooky fun.
Day One of BFI’s LFF wasn’t without its faults, but there was more than enough nail-biting tension and shocks to paper over the cracks, and as each of the three films were from relative newcomers or legitimate first-timer’s, it’s an exciting prospect for their future projects, whatever they may be.