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.
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 we 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.
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.
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.
Starring Robert Pattinson and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Directed by Joshua Safdie and Ben Safdie.
Rated R for language throughout, violence, drug use and sexual content. Check listings for theaters. 1 hour, 40 minutes.
Bottom line: A crime thriller that you can’t look away from
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.