The most legitimately divisive movie of the moment, right alongside (and more urgent than) “Detroit,” the unnerving crime thriller “Good Time” moves like a streak, barely able to keep up with its characters.
The reckless, selfish, charismatic man at its core, Constantine “Connie” Nikas, is a small-time Queens, N.Y., hustler of Greek-American extraction. He’s played by Robert Pattinson. The actor’s “Twilight” vampire career afforded the young, minimally impressive actor the chance to get better at his line of work, one uncommercial movie at a time, as he worked with interesting directors on daunting material.
This impulse brought Pattinson to New York filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie, writers and directors and brothers. For “Daddy Longlegs” (2009) the Safdies drew on their own, perilous childhood with a loving but risk-prone father. “Heaven Knows What” (2014) bridged documentary and fictional narrative, using the journals of then-homeless Arielle Holmes as the basis of a clammy, tightly wound study in addiction and escape. Their work is bleak but charged with wit, with the street-level excitement of real cinema.
The cruelty inherent in their stories takes on a propulsive new dimension in “Good Time,” the Safdies’ two-man leap into the dictates of genre filmmaking. It’s also their first project blending expressive non-actors with a handful of established names, including Pattinson and Oscar nominees Jennifer Jason Leigh and, from “Captain Phillips,” Barkhad Abdi.
Pattinson, as many have noted, is nearly unrecognizable here as Connie, a twitch in perpetual motion, a fast talker, and a user of everyone around him. There are times when you catch him acting; some of the physical mannerisms and, especially, the vocal work and the dialect flourishes, seem like calculation, not quite absorbed into the fabric of the overall performance. But it’s a real performance, and Pattinson isn’t showboating here. The character of Connie is a fabulist and a weasel, and Pattinson’s characterization makes each sweaty chapter of this crime story fascinating.
It’s not simply Connie’s story. The opening scene belongs to the other brother, Nick (played with perfect pitch and emotional nakedness by co-director Benny Safdie). In tight, intimidating close-ups we see Nick in a drab office with a court-appointed psychiatrist (Peter Verby). As the doctor questions the developmentally and hearing-challenged young man, we learn bits and pieces of what Nick and Connie have endured living with their abusive grandmother, who enters the story later. It’s an extraordinarily deft overture: just enough exposition to tell us what need to know about the stories leading up to this one.
Connie bursts into the room, interrupts the session, and busts his brother out so that they can embark on the adventure of their lives, for better or worse. There’s a bank robbery on the agenda. Connie convinces Nick he can do it; he tells him he has the stuff it takes to commit a crime.
Wearing racially provocative dark-skinned masks (“stop messing with it!” Connie tells Nick) the Nikas boys dash with the money, but right away the good times promised by the title prove slippery. In short order the robbery goes flooey, and Nick winds up in the hospital after a brutal beating he suffers on Rikers Island. Where the Safdies take the story from there becomes a dizzying and dizzyingly plausible odyssey of improvisation, a survival game of perpetually shifting rules.
Two key supporting characters, two among many to suffer at Connie’s hands, are black. Several critics have leveled charges of racism at “Good Time,” and at the Safdies. For reasons I won’t reveal, Connie at one point knocks on the door of a random house, and within minutes a 16-year-old girl (Taliah Webster, who will break your heart) becomes his confidante, and an accomplice of sorts.
The action rolls on to Long Island and the Adventureland amusement park, where a night security guard (Abdi) runs afoul of Connie in a particularly painful way. Though he loves his brother, and feels more for him than he knows what to do with, Pattinson’s character exploits and discards everyone in his blinkered life, including his girlfriend (Leigh), either for money, shelter or plain self-interest. The police keep giving him a break because even in his particular socioeconomic strata, he enjoys a full load of white privilege.
The racial undercurrents in “Good Time” are harsh and not entirely resolved (some of it’s cruel, period), but I think it’s part of a legitimate and seriously affecting picture of where we are in America today. Sean Price Williams’ gorgeous long-lens cinematography favors dense telephoto imagery, often sustained for long, richly detailed passages of action, instead of the usual shaky-cam faux-documentary tics. The script by Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein comes alive, thanks in large part to the gripping electronic score by Oneohtrix Point Never. In the Safdie movies the sound design is right on top of the action; it’s the sound of nervous systems under extreme pressure.
Most crime movies, even alleged indies, make it easy for the audience to take sides and establish clear rooting interests. “Good Time” is better than that: It’s not always easy to take, yet you can’t look away.
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Barkhad Abdi
Directors: Josh and Benny Safdie
Rated R (language throughout, violence, drug use and sexual content)