Constantine “Connie” Nikas, the small-time crook played by Robert Pattinson in Josh and Benny Safdie’s new film Good Time, inspires thoughts of a Cat with Nine Lives. This sort of character usually shows up in movies and television shows about working-class people in harsh urban settings, and for most of their runtime, as if by magic, they manage to dodge every potential danger. Sometimes that character is the protagonist, sometimes the scene-stealing supporting player. It’s a magnetic, often very funny, but never entirely trustworthy role. It’s always a he: Bobby in The Panic in Needle Park, Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, Omar in The Wire, Ilya in the Safdie Brothers’ own Heaven Knows What. Gifted with boundless energy, but deep down knowing time is running out.
Over the course of the long night Good Time chronicles, Connie enjoys some spectacular luck, though it never gives him much satisfaction. After he talks his mentally disabled brother, Nick (played sensitively by Benny Safdie) into helping him rob a bank, Nick is arrested and sent to Riker’s Island, leaving Connie to bail him out. When his girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) fails to front the cash, he tries to spring his brother from the hospital, and just before the crack of dawn, for reasons too good to disclose here, he’s racing around an amusement park in search of a small fortune’s worth of drug money. At every stage, police officers fail to catch him and hardened New Yorkers buy into his phony stories. But even these constant minor victories register as setbacks, reminding him of how much further he has to dig to get out of the hole. Nine lives may not be enough to get him through the night.
Every couple of years, a big-name actor turns in a performance that risks being dismissed as an early Al Pacino knockoff. Pattinson’s outer-borough vowels and penetrating stare recall Oscar Isaac’s turn in A Most Violent Year, but where the latter came across as a competent impression, Pattinson’s feels like a great performance cut from different cloth. In an era when New Hollywood homage is one of the most bankable modes of midrange prestige filmmaking, Pattinson avoids fetishistic imitation, treating Pacino’s early films, particularly Dog Day Afternoon, as the jumping-off point for his own artistic interpretation (the same could be said about the Safdie Brothers’ direction). Pattinson never gives a “Pacino freakout” tailor-made for awards shows. Nor does he seem to be grasping for respect in the way one associates with modern riffs on the 1970’s or young heartthrobs trying to reinvent themselves as Serious Actors.
Too often, performers like Pattinson get praised for making themselves “invisible” in their new art house roles, as if the charm that made them famous were a hideous disease. (This kind of thinking led to some of the response to Pattinson’s role in The Lost City of Z earlier this year.) Pattinson’s chilly charisma, at once alluring and frightening, has always been his greatest asset as an actor, and in Good Time he turns it up, down, on, and off as expertly as a DJ working his sound levels. True to his name, Connie swindles strangers into helping him by using a mixture of seduction and speed that borders on the sociopathic. You also get the feeling that he’s conning himself—he knows that if he hesitated for even a second, he’d buckle under the weight of his obligations.
In spite of Pattinson’s skill, the Safdie Brothers’ decision to cast him as the lead is likely to displease some of their fans. Their last effort, Heaven Knows What, starred a formerly homeless heroine junkie named Arielle Holmes and a handful of other addicts and ex-addicts, several of whom appear here. It’s not exactly that the Safdies have gone to Hollywood; they direct as if the Iron Curtain separating independent and commercial filmmaking didn’t exist. Their great cinematographer Sean Price Williams shoots some of the film in a jittery, handheld style that resembles the bulk of neorealist indies. Other scenes offer the scope and visual extravagance of bigger-budgeted works. The opening helicopter aerial shot of lower Manhattan is a mainstream staple, as cool as it is cliché, that shows up in everything from War of the Worlds to the Miramax logo. When a hidden bomb drenches Connie and Nick in red paint, Williams follows them past innumerable big objects colored an identical shade—a weird visual irony, evoking Alfred Hitchcock or early Orson Welles.
While the Safdies find ways of integrating independent and Hollywood tropes, Good Time shows them leaning toward more confidently toward the studio side. The result is a work that feels more carefully constructed than their previous efforts. If the constant question in Heaven Knows What was, “What will these characters do next,” Good Time more often asks what the Safdies are about to do to their characters. Even in the scenes set in the least airbrushed parts of Queens, the film seems to take place inside an enormous, tightly-sealed box in which nothing has been left up to natural forces. (In one of the movie’s better recurring jokes, the characters kvetch about how freezing cold they are, though nobody’s breath is ever seen.) The powerful Oncohtrix Point Never soundtrack serves as the glue holding the film’s artificial and naturalistic sides together—most effectively in a brief, brilliant scene where Connie unplugs a hospital patient from his heart monitor, and the shriek of the machinery merges with the electronic score.
Like many other crime films made under strong auteurist controls—think early 1980’s Brian de Palma—Good Time’s two dominant moods are horror and bitter humor, culminating in moments of almost hysterical bleakness. By the 15-minute mark the Safdies train the audience to anticipate the very worst for all concerned, and it’s a mark of their success that as soon as the film introduces its MacGuffin (a plastic Sprite bottle full of LSD), the minutes in by until some poor soul drinks from it. In a world where indifference is the norm and warmth is out of the question, queasy exhilaration is best Connie and his peers—like the tribe of junkies from Heaven Knows What—can pray for.
There are times during Connie’s quest when it’s difficult to remember exactly why he’s doing anything. In a literal sense, he’s trying to get his brother out of jail, but the Safdies suggests a deeper motive spurring him on: the need to break away from the rat race. New York is a prison, no matter which side of the bars you happen to be on, and some of Good Time’s most disturbing moments show the characters asserting their place in the socioeconomic food chain, screwing the sorry suckers trapped below them. The most unforgettable people Connie meets are employees doing their little jobs—driving people home, checking them into the hospital, counting money, and administering tests. A handful seem to mean well, but many more use the power they’ve been given to bully or rip-off those too weak to fight back. After a while, bank robbery starts to look like the lesser of two evils.