Josh and Benny Safdie, young filmmaking brothers from New York City, make handcrafted low-budget movies that are clearly indebted to the independent giants of the ’60s and ’70s: Martin Scorsese, John Cassavetes, even Albert Maysles (whose influence can be seen in their one documentary to date, Lenny Cooke). The Safdies prefer handheld or traveling cameras, overlapping dialogue, and guerilla-style shoots that incorporate their characters into everyday life on the street.
Critics often describe the Safdie brothers’ films as “jagged” or “rough,” though there’s a high degree of forethought (sometimes a tad too much for my taste) behind every aesthetic choice. With their last three feature films, though, the brothers have been hitting their stride. 2010’s Daddy Longlegs was an unsparing semi-autobiographical glimpse at a childhood with a manic and irresponsible father. In 2014’s Heaven Knows What, they cast the author of a heroin-addiction memoir as herself, to powerful and grim effect. Now this year’s Good Time, the closest thing the brothers have yet made to an action thriller, makes excellent use of their particular shooting style, which could itself be described as displaying symptoms of mania. Over the course of a day, a night, and part of the next day, we follow—or struggle to keep up with—low-level scam artist and would-be bank robber Constantine “Connie” Nikas (Robert Pattinson) as he hurtles around Queens in search of $10,000 to bail out his mentally disabled brother. Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie) is being held in jail for reasons that are entirely Connie’s fault. Whether out of guilt or worry for his defenseless younger sibling—who, it’s implied, has suffered abuse at the hands of the grandmother with whom he lives—Connie swears not to go home until he has conjured up that bail money, by hook or (as turns out to be the case) by crook.
In the course of this journey, Connie will start out with bad ideas (like bank robbing) and move on to truly terrible ones, each hasty decision a flawed attempt to fix damages caused by the last. After Nick gets beaten up in jail and taken to a nearby hospital, Connie manages to smuggle his unconscious body out in a wheelchair—only to discover beneath the patient’s heavy face bandages that he’s rescued the wrong man. Instead of his unfairly jailed brother, Connie is saddled with Ray (played by Heaven Knows What actor Buddy Duress, who actually missed that film’s premiere while jailed at Rikers Island), a surly alcoholic who’s fresh out of prison himself and has no intention of going back. The two of them hatch a plan to sell a stash of homemade LSD Ray knows about. (It’s hidden, a touch too cinematically, inside an amusement park haunted house called “Romance Apocalypse.”) Along with Crystal (Taliah Webster), a 16-year-old girl whose grandmother’s car they’ve commandeered for this mission, Connie and Ray set out to recover the drug stash, sell the contents, and split the cash.
Connie’s reckless, driven energy finds its equivalent in Sean Price Williams’ mobile yet steady-handed cinematography, which creates ever-shifting frames in which these permanently off-balance characters bounce and collide. The electronic score, by Oneohtrix Point Never, is both unusually omnipresent and unusually avant-garde–sounding for a movie of such otherwise naturalistic style. This counterpoint between music and image is mostly effective though a few moments—like a car pulling up to a White Castle to the sound of anxious, discordant plinks and booms—strike an overly self-conscious and needlessly manipulative note. (The visual equivalent to this moment is a scene at the amusement park that takes place in black light. The closed-down erotic-themed haunted house was creepy enough, guys.)
This story about white working-class men on the run also includes two secondary but pivotal characters of color: the adolescent girl who joins Connie and Ray on their joyless joyride, and a security guard (Barkhad Abdi) who attempts to apprehend them inside the black-light funhouse. Though there’s no overt commentary regarding the racial divide that separates these characters from their white counterparts, a lot is expressed in the long last look that passes between Pattinson’s Connie and Crystal, the black teenager who—without revealing too much—receives worse treatment at the hands of the cops they encounter than Connie’s bleach-blond, sweet-talking self. The final shot, too—a long close-up on Pattinson in which we see him finally taking in the enormity of human damage his night has wrought—provides a welcome moment of emotional release in this unremittingly fast-paced chase movie.
When Pattinson was the favorite to win Best Actor at Cannes for this performance, an award he eventually lost to Joaquin Phoenix in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, there was widespread surprise expressed that the inert hunk of the Twilight franchise had matured into an inventive actor capable of and willing to take on challenges. Having already admired Pattinson’s post-vampire work in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis and elsewhere, I wasn’t surprised to see him kill it in this role as a shambling antihero in the Dog Day Afternoon mode. With this movie, both Pattinson and the Safdie brothers have broken new ground in their careers; if you haven’t been keeping track of what either of them is up to, Good Time would be a good time to start.