An unnerving crime thriller for our times
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 (“Twilight”).
The cruelty inherent in the stories of Josh and Benny Safdie, writers and directors and brothers, takes on a propulsive new dimension in “Good Time.”
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. 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 Benny Safdie). In tight, intimidating close-ups, we see Nick in a drab office with a court-appointed psychiatrist (Peter Verby).
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 MPAA rating: R (for language throughout, violence, drug use and sexual content) Running time: 1:40 Opens: Friday 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 accom- plice of sorts.
The action rolls on to Long Island and the Adventureland amusement park, where a night security guard (Barkhad Abdi of “Captain Phillips”) 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 (Jennifer Jason 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, but I think it’s part of a legitimate and seriously affecting picture of where we are in America today.
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. Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
Robert Pattinson stars as a small-time crook in Queens.