A bank heist thriller with two brothers pulling off the robberies together might not seem on paper like the best recipe for originality, but under the watchful eyes of the Safdie brothers, Good Time is a unique, sickly blast of neon-drenched adrenaline that never shies away from how ugly and stupid crime can be. An oppressively immersive experience of the longest night of one criminal’s life, it’s part farce, part gritty crime drama, and all excellent.
From the off, Good Time resembles almost no other crime film, as Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie) is wrenched from his therapy session by his awful brother Connie (Robert Pattinson). Nick has learning difficulties, and the way in which he is manipulated into sticking up a bank while wearing blackface masks is just the first of many depravities that Connie will sink to before the film is out. Inevitably, the heist goes miserably wrong, Nick ending up in Riker’s Island, with Connie’s attempt to put together his bail money – by exploiting his unstable girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – forms the bulk of the first act.
From there, things get ever more out of hand, in ways that it would be a shame to spoil, but suffice it to say that tricking a mentally handicapped family member into committing a violent felony isn’t even Connie’s greatest sin of the night. It’s a bold choice to have such a vile protagonist, but the Safdies (and co-writer Ronald Bronstein, also on editing duties) pull it off with a combination of brilliant plotting, sharp characterisation and a career-best turn from Robert Pattinson. Like his fellow Twilight star Kristen Stewart, Pattinson’s starring role in the vampire melodramas has led people to underestimate his talent, but as Connie, he’s truly superb, the sort of brilliant break from franchise filmmaking that Stewart was afforded by Clouds of Sils Maria.
Vicious and desperate, it’s a bravura display, and Pattinson commits to a full-force and frantic scumbag of a character. Connie’s in a constant state of self-justification, the exhaustion and righteousness of which Pattinson sells perfectly. He’s the only constant of a film in perpetual manic motion, leaving behind those he uses the second he’s done with them as he barrels through the city. A hospital escape, a brutal fistfight in a carnival, and an acid deal in a stranger’s apartment are just three of many stomach-knotting set-pieces that the Safdies stage with unflinching realism.
There’s little in the way of actual violence, but I found myself shrinking from the screen exactly as I would have in a far gorier film. The ragged confusion felt by the characters is infectious and hugely discomforting, with Sean Price Williams’s visceral, fly on the wall cinematography creating a powerful sense of claustrophobia. Darkness engulfs much of the second act, the kind of inky blackness that even the brightest light stands no chance of ousting which, when combined with the punishing synth score by Oneohtrix Point Never, weighs down your soul.
It’s decidedly not for everyone, grubby and nasty as it is, with relentlessly in your face sound design and music. It’s also a bit of a shaggy dog story that makes very little meaningful progress for any of its characters, who are trapped in infernal prisons that they’ve made for themselves, and as a genuinely tough watch, this sort-of pointlessness could feel a little insulting. Shifts in focus from Connie’s point of view to some of the hapless folks he encounters can also rob the film of some of its energy, though they are very diverting stories in their own right.
It all comes good in the finale though, when Good Time reaches for a poignancy that one might assume was beyond it. It hits this nakedly emotional note with complete sincerity, the use of non-actors outside of the core cast paying dividends. Pulling double duties as director and star, Benny Safdie is terrifically, distressingly believable as Nick, and a first-time performance from Taliah Webster as a 16 year old that Connie drags into his schemes is very strong, making an impact even as the older characters screech and rage around her.
I didn’t really get on with the Safdies’s previous, highly acclaimed, film Heaven Knows What, but Good Time, even while using similar techniques to its predecessor, is irresistible in its sweaty, panicked drive. And in an unashamedly horrible role, Robert Pattinson elevates himself into a new tier as an actor, tearing into the character until he disappears behind the frosted tips and villainy of one of 2017’s most morally compromised protagonists.