Like most other millennials, entering the workforce violently rearranged my priorities.
You likely know the story firsthand: endless contract work, a lack of health coverage, and insubstantial wages all push your aspirations to an untraversable distance as you strive to keeps the nuts and bolts of your body in place. It’s hard to really care about self-actualization when you are just trying to get rid of your tooth pain and fix your eyesight.
That’s why I was overjoyed when my provincial government recently introduced legislation to raise our minimum wage from $11.60 an hour to $15 an hour by the start of 2019. And while the increase should probably be greater (and the time allotted for its rollout more compressed), the legislation seems to be an obvious necessity: it will help to keep people out of poverty, which ultimately means that fewer people will suffer and die as a result of their position in the ever-stretching economic hierarchy of our country and continent. It is, or should be, universally understood that those who work for the lowest wages experience the greatest impact when those wages are increased by any tangible (read: miniscule) amount.
Yet right in the midst of this small step towards economic justice, we began to hear the familiar groans come rumbling from those already higher up on the more rarefied slopes of Maslow’s hierarchy: “Small businesses will collapse!” “Companies will stop investing in our communities!” “Job availability will plummet!” And, perhaps the most callous complaint, “It’s not FAIR, because I [or, in my favorite version of this argument, the complainant’s first ancestor to arrive at this country’s uncharitable shores] had to work for nothing and earn my current wage and position.” Astoundingly, the moral outcry wasn’t over the preventable death and suffering caused by not having money or adequate social services, but over the restriction of a company’s freedom to determine how much it will indenture and exploit its laborers in the pursuit of profit.
You see this kind of moral sclerosis in the responses to almost any policy, event, or disaster; you can see it now in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, when abhorrence is reserved not for the price gougers, but for the “looters’” taking waterlogged bread from superstores so that they can eat. You see it whenever there is an American debate over universal health coverage – a concept anathema to those who view taxation as a form of property theft. You see it whenever you hear the puerile complaint that social service programs are not much more than unfair handouts that enable the laziness of the poor. You see it when chronic under-investment in a public housing high-rise leads to almost one hundred residents dying in a preventable fire. And at the root of all of this neglect, marginalization and outright animus lies a single question: why should I (as a taxpayer, employer, landowner or just a plain human being) have any responsibility for the well being of others?
It is a deeply isolating question, and it reveals the alienation that is endemic to capitalism–constant competition leaves you and yours against the world. As Marx wrote, when our dominant economic mode (i.e. one that requires the continuous production and consumption of commodities to create profit) metastasizes around our worldviews, relationships, and senses of self, capital becomes the universal metric that incorporates (and thus obliterates) social, political and ethical values. In other words, when contributing to a capitalist economy becomes the highest good, you are able to hate and mistreat the losers: you can treat poverty like a social disease, laud predatory companies as job-producers, deny healthcare to the most vulnerable people of your society, and defend a military industrial complex that uses the destruction of human life as an engine of profit. And in this constant search for the competitive market advantage, anything can become a commodity–not only will products be shamelessly reinvented as new (as in the case of the now-infamous Silicon Valley “juicer” whose function can be performed with two human hands, and Lyft’s less-accessible version of the public bus), but principles, ideas and people will become just other products to sell. McDonald’s, a company that not only underpays its workers but robs them of their wages, can use the label “progressive burger company” in a shrewd push for more market share, and Pepsi, a company whose partner not only cheats its workers out of benefits and fair pay but coerces them to hire children, can portray its soda as a utopic tool that resolves the tension between protester and policeman. And in an age that uses the phrase ‘personal brand’ unironically, our interactions with one another become transactional instead of meaningful. We are the most important commodity we can sell, and if we have to constantly wonder “What can I get out of this?,” we will soon start to ask “Why should I care?” when confronted with the suffering of others. Capitalism does not just alienate us from the products of our labor, it alienates us from one another and any sense of the larger social good.
This is where the genius of Good Time lies, as it is a film that employs capitalist alienation as a subtext to its Conrad-like journey into the urban jungle. Connie (played by Robert Pattinson) and his brother Nick (played by Ben Safdie, who also directed the movie with his brother Josh) are alone against the vast systems that structure their lives: the state, its police, its court system and its social services. The contrast between the first two shots of the film reveals this immediately. We open first with an extreme wide shot of an office building that is all the more isolating because it lacks any distinguishing features. It is a structure of vast sameness that swallows the individuals within it, a perfect image of Max Weber’s conception of the depersonalized bureaucracy that functions as a hyper-rational feudalism, complete with rigid class lines, in any developed capitalist system. We then cut to an extreme close-up of Nick’s face, and we quickly learn that Nick has an intellectual disability when he attempts to answer questions from a nameless mental health official. You feel Nick’s isolation immediately as he lost in the larger statistic, devoured by a system he does not quite understand. Connie’s interruption of the meeting comes as a relief, as he is the only person Nick has who does not need to be paid to care about him. In the film’s opening minutes, we feel the brothers’ dependency on one another as a result of their exile on the social periphery.
How can you achieve independence in such a system? For the brothers, who are poor and without any real economic prospects, the answer is clear: they have to rob a bank. And this act, itself a refusal to toil in the low-paid positions waiting for them, is the impetus for the film’s seemingly-erratic narrative. Nick is caught, swallowed this time by the cold labyrinth of the penal system, and Connie is forced to find ten thousand dollars to bail him out. Trapped again by a need for money, Connie ventures out into the city and careens through the lives of people who are equally trapped–trapped in low-paid jobs (a security guard puts himself at risk to keep Connie and his accomplice Ray out of a dilapidated amusement park), trapped in precarious domestic situations (a beleaguered grandmother cannot prevent her young granddaughter from getting arrested), trapped in drug habits (Ray’s sole concern is a discarded bottle of LSD), and trapped in poverty.
Yet this mutual suffering is not a basis for solidarity, as Nick shamelessly exploits the people he encounters, lying, manipulating and brutalizing them in order to get what they have: a car, a dollar, a uniform, a drug stash, a place to stay. In this urban underworld, not being a commodity to exploit makes you a competitor, an enemy. Nick thus ricochets against other people in a destructive, desperate randomness that is not just a symptom of capitalist urban alienation, but also a representation of how cities have come to be governed: social services no longer matter as much as an individual’s ability to generate profit. In a 1989 paper published by Geografiska Annaler, David Harvey notes that in the latter half of the twentieth century, there was a shift from managerialism, where urban governance focused on the redistribution of resources and the dispensation of services and benefits, to entrepreneurialism, where competitive enterprise was foregrounded as the privileged form of economic development. In short, efficiency and competition now become the dominant values as the state finds itself increasingly powerless to resist the strength of multinational capital, and local communities scramble to make themselves appealing to potential investors. And in a system where a sense of the social good has been sacrificed to the power of capital, you must compete in this game or suffer. Thus the tragedy of Good Time, which is the tragedy of capitalism itself, lies in the fact that while Nick is most certainly a victim of this entrepreneurial privileging (having no real opportunity to compete or succeed), he must still abide by its logic: gaining money, either through victory in the free market or theft, is the only way to avoid being discarded by the system. It is the only way to reclaim your power of self-determination.
What makes Good Time brilliant is that its exegesis of capital-focused governance comes through a visceral depiction of being trapped within it. The opening contrast between a wide shot and a close-up becomes a motif of the film, and many shots are taken from the perspective of the city’s surveillance apparatuses: the frame is often positioned at a high angle to make you feel as if you are watching characters through the lens of a security camera, and this lends a distance that frames the characters as rats in the maze of the city and its system of predatory competition. And by combining these perspectives with frenetic, handicam close-ups, Good Time is able to deftly alternate between what are essentially first and third person perspectives. As a result, the film is able to show both the neon heat of a desperate competition for survival and the cold resignation to inevitable destitution at the hands of a vast, indifferent machine. In this way, Good Time exchanges the didacticism of a film like Money Monster for a meticulously-layered experience of living under the pressures of capital. Experience, in short, becomes a form of critique; we feel the intimate pain of an impersonal distancing that comes from being discarded by a capricious socioeconomic system. The climax of this process comes in the form of Connie’s eventual arrest: we are kept at a high aerial view as we witness Connie fleeing from the police a final time. Connie is literally pulled away from us by both the cops and the camera as we watch from on high, the city’s grey concrete labyrinth devouring him with a cold, mechanized finality.
Yet the film does not keep us there long. Absolved and released as a result of Connie’s confession, Nick comes back into the film’s focus. Guided by the therapist he ran from in the film’s opening scene, Nick enters a room where other patients are engaging in a game of “cross the line.” We slowly zoom out from Nick as we hear statements like “cross the room if you have lost someone close to you” and “cross the room if you have ever been in love.” As the patients move across the room with increasing confidence, we slowly see that Nick is not alone–the experiences that he has suffered have been shared by others. And when the credits quietly roll up over this scene, we witness the film’s powerful conclusion: a solidarity based on shared experiences is how you repudiate a hostile system that imposes scarcity and isolation upon you. The film’s final scene is as quiet as it is understated, showing us that there is power and kinship in simple acknowledgement.
This is what is missed by so many of those who persist in applying a competitive, capitalist logic to the affairs of human beings: we desperately need an independent social good that we can pursue with, and for the benefit of, one another. Without a shared, communal sense of that goal, we allow capitalism to speak for us, to dictate to us the value of our actions, ethics and relationships. Good Time shows us the hell of this condition, when our only hope out of an imposed, contrived scarcity is competition for capital. It is a state, to borrow Friedrich Engels’ phrase, of rampant social murder, where a countless number of people are effectively sentenced to death by the conditions in which they are forced to live and work. It is a state where your wage determines how many jobs you will need to support a family that you will barely be there for. It is a state that causes hunger and starvation in the midst of food surplus. It is a state that makes us all complicit in the subjugation and exploitation of our fellow human beings. And it is a state that we must, together, change.
Featured Image: A24