‘Good Time’

With a rev­e­la­tory Robert Pat­tin­son in the lead, ‘Good Time’ proves ex­actly that

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - JUSTIN CHANG FILM CRITIC justin.chang@la­times.com

Robert Pat­tin­son has a break­through per­for­mance as a crim­i­nal.

The ti­tle of “Good Time,” a nerve-jan­gling new thriller from New York-based di­rec­tors Josh and Benny Safdie, is ut­tered briefly in the movie’s fi­nal mo­ments by a char­ac­ter of lit­tle con­se­quence. In that rather for­lorn con­text, the words come off as de­spair­ing and more than a lit­tle ironic, the cruel kicker to a story about a few lowlifes caught up in a swift-mov­ing cy­cle of crime and pun­ish­ment, des­per­a­tion and greed.

But on an­other level, the ti­tle isn’t ironic at all. At once a swift, re­lent­less chase thriller and an ex­hil­a­rat­ing mood piece that re­calls the great, gritty crime dramas of Sid­ney Lumet and Abel Fer­rara, “Good Time” is also ex­actly what it says it is: a thrill, a blast, a fast-act­ing tonic of a movie. There may be some­thing coun­ter­in­tu­itive about a pic­ture of such crush­ing per­sonal lows send­ing you out of the theater on such a po­tent cin­e­matic high. But then, the Safdie broth­ers have al­ways been coun­ter­in­tu­itive in their fo­cus on the kinds of men and women who dart through life with nei­ther plan nor pur­pose, their tempers flared and their nerve end­ings ex­posed.

The di­rec­tors’ two prior fea­ture-length col­lab­o­ra­tions — “Daddy Lon­glegs” (2009), an em­pa­thetic por­trait of a rag­ing and re­mark­ably un­fit father, and “Heaven Knows What” (2015), a har­row­ing chron­i­cle of junkie anomie — drew their ma­te­rial from the stuff of real life, as borne out by their re­fusal to traf­fic in easy nar­ra­tives of redemp­tion or up­lift. “Good Time” proves sim­i­larly al­ler­gic to com­pro­mise, which is fairly re­mark­able, con­sid­er­ing that this time the Safdies have not only fil­tered their lower-depths poetry through the prism of genre but also cast an hon­est-to-God movie star.

That would be Robert Pat­tin­son, the 31-year-old Bri­tish heart­throb who came to fame play­ing a shim­mery vam­pire in the “Twi­light” movies — a block­buster as­so­ci­a­tion that Pat­tin­son, not un­like his former costar Kris­ten Stewart, has qui­etly and fas­tid­i­ously dis­man­tled. He has done this in part by work­ing with some of the more in­ter­est­ing names in world cin­ema, like David Cro­nen­berg, who mined his pre­vi­ously hid­den depths in the 2012 art-house chiller “Cos­mopo­lis,” and James Gray, who cast him bril­liantly against type as a re­al­life Ama­zon ex­plorer in this year’s “The Lost City of Z.”

“Good Time” is Pat­tin­son’s break­through, the most sus­tained and rev­e­la­tory trans­for­ma­tion of the ac­tor’s ca­reer and, not co­in­ci­den­tally, the most ex­treme of his re­cent ef­forts to thwart the au­di­ence’s sym­pa­thies. The young man in ques­tion is Con­stan­tine Nikas, a.k.a. Con­nie, a scuzzy small-timer from Queens who dashes through much of the movie sport­ing stud ear­rings, a gray hoodie and a hastily ap­plied blond dye job. He is both a cat­a­stroph­i­cally in­ept crim­i­nal and a nim­ble im­pro­vi­sa­tional genius, a master at get­ting him­self out of one hair-rais­ing sit­u­a­tion only to plunge him­self im­me­di­ately into an­other.

Con­nie’s sole re­deem­ing qual­ity is his love for his brother, Nick, a hear­ing-im­paired, men­tally dis­abled young man played with gal­va­niz­ing vul­ner­a­bil­ity by Benny Safdie (do­ing a nice job of di­rect­ing him­self ). We first meet Nick dur­ing a psy­chi­atric eval­u­a­tion, and as he ut­ters a se­ries of gruff, one-line re­sponses to the ques­tions posed by the ther­a­pist (Peter Verby), an en­tire his­tory of ne­glect and abuse emerges in ev­ery pause.

Into the room storms Con­nie, who has clearly cho­sen to rebel against the Nikas fam­ily’s mis­treat­ment rather than buckle un­der, if Pat­tin­son’s ag­i­tated livewire in­ten­sity is any in­di­ca­tion. Shortly af­ter drag­ging Nick out of the eval­u­a­tion, Con­nie, promis­ing a big pay­day and a fresh start in Vir­ginia, makes his brother an ac­com­plice in a shock­ingly clumsy bank rob­bery that plays out with a stom­ach­knot­ting mix of ten­sion and dark hu­mor.

Af­ter a few star­tling set­backs and botched get­aways, the hap­less Nick is ar­rested, leav­ing it to the fugi­tive Con­nie to bust him out of jail. With prac­ticed nerve and an of­ten ap­pallingly funny ap­proach to prob­lem­solv­ing, Con­nie starts by try­ing to get his tetchy, naive girlfriend, Corey (a sharp Jennifer Jason Leigh), to post his brother’s bail. That plan quickly fiz­zles, but it’s still an amus­ing in­tro­duc­tion to a char­ac­ter who seems to have emerged fully formed from a movie of her own — one you’d gladly follow her back into if this one weren’t so com­pelling.

The same could be said of a fast-talk­ing ex-con, Ray (played by “Heaven Knows What’s” al­most-too-per­fectly named Buddy Duress), whose ac­cess to a se­cret LSD stash sends Con­nie on yet an­other hare­brained get-rich-quick scheme. Most af­fect­ing of all are an el­derly Haitian im­mi­grant (Gla­dys Mathon) and her sar­donic 16-year-old grand­daugh­ter, Crys­tal (Taliah Web­ster, a new­comer and a nat­u­ral), whose seem­ingly lim­it­less pa­tience and hospi­tal­ity Con­nie pre­vails upon af­ter one par­tic­u­larly nar­row es­cape.

The screen­play, writ­ten by Josh Safdie and reg­u­lar col­lab­o­ra­tor Ron­ald Bron­stein, may have con­trived these sup­port­ing char­ac­ters to steer the plot from one com­pli­ca­tion to the next, but on-screen, they feel like noth­ing less than the cam­era’s bril­liant dis­cov­er­ies. By blur­ring the line where nar­ra­tive ex­pe­di­ency ends and shrewd slice-of-life ob­ser­va­tion be­gins, the film­mak­ers have made a breath­less, propul­sive ac­tion movie with­out stint­ing on any of the close-to-the-skin re­al­ism that dis­tin­guished their ear­lier work.

That re­al­ism doesn’t pre­clude a sur­feit of style. When cine­matog­ra­pher Sean Price Wil­liams isn’t send­ing the cam­era zoom­ing across the city in over­head es­tab­lish­ing shots, he’s lock­ing the ac­tors in tight, jit­tery close­ups that con­vey both mo­bil­ity and en­trap­ment. The faster these guys run, the more the noose tight­ens around their necks. The ac­tion tends to play out in cramped, squalid set­tings — the back of an am­bu­lance, the in­te­rior of a jail cell, the dark rooms of an apart­ment that briefly be­comes the sad­dest of safe houses.

The Safdies have fun sat­u­rat­ing their images in puls­ing neon reds and turn­ing up the pure sonic adren­a­line of Oneo­htrix Point Never’s elec­tronic score, but their pulse-quick­en­ing flour­ishes feel en­tirely of a piece with the mat­ters at hand. And at ev­ery mo­ment, their at­ten­tive­ness to process gives “Good Time” a ra­zor-sharp fo­cus and a bristling, mo­ment-to-mo­ment un­pre­dictabil­ity. The story never gets ahead of it­self, or al­lows us to get ahead of it; most of the time, we’re caught up watch­ing Con­nie think his way out of ev­ery predica­ment.

And, in turn, do­ing some think­ing our­selves. In a movie that ef­fort­lessly em­bod­ies the eth­nic and cul­tural di­ver­sity of the Safdies’ home city, it shouldn’t es­cape any­one’s no­tice that Con­nie, de­spite his lowly up­bring­ing, en­joys a mea­sure of so­cial priv­i­lege that some of the other char­ac­ters do not. Blink and you’ll miss the curious fate that be­falls a black se­cu­rity guard (Barkhad Abdi, an Oscar nom­i­nee for “Cap­tain Phillips”) or the pointed mo­ment when a cou­ple of po­lice of­fi­cers, spy­ing Con­nie and Crys­tal to­gether, pro­ceed to tar­get the African Amer­i­can teenager rather than the white bank rob­ber whose face has been plas­tered all over the news.

The film­mak­ers don’t be­la­bor their point; as that ti­tle sug­gests, they cer­tainly want you to en­joy your­self. But they’ve made the rare genre piece that re­fuses to equate en­ter­tain­ment with an es­cape from re­al­ity or to turn a tale of fool­ish men into a cel­e­bra­tion of stu­pid­ity. The great­ness of Pat­tin­son’s per­for­mance makes it aw­fully hard not to root for Con­nie Nikas, but that’s no rea­son to mis­take him for the hero.


ROBERT PAT­TIN­SON tosses that “Twi­light” heart­throb la­bel right out the win­dow with his break­through per­for­mance in “Good Time.”

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