Good Time begins with a word-association game between a therapist and his patient in the prayerful quiet of a New York consulting room. It’s a subtle prompt, intended or otherwise, not to take the title of brothers Benny and Josh Safdie’s new movie entirely at face value. Yes, this film about a bank heist gone wrong in a gritty district of Queens is often very funny and it’s ferociously gripping: a crime caper that entertains with slick assurance.
But as well as delivering on its promise of a good time, this thriller is doing other, more subtle things, things that stay with you much longer than quick laughs and buzzy thrills. It’s an electrifying and tragedy-tinged fable about the escalating misery of bad decisions. It’s a sly and vivid dispatch from the struggling margins of Trump’s America. And it’s Robert Pattinson on peak form, giving a performance of desperate ferocity and trapped intensity.
Pattinson plays Connie Nikas, a hustler with street smarts planning the heist of a local bank. We’re introduced to him bursting in on that opening therapy session, where his brother Nick (co-director Benny Safdie), a lumbering gentle soul with learning difficulties, is submitting to the solicitous scrutiny of a counsellor. It’s quite a moment, and the blunt swagger and rude assertion of Pattison’s entrance feels like a new direction for an actor best known for sensitive, introspective roles.
He grabs the opportunity with relish. Having hauled his brother out of that therapy session, Connie ropes Nick into the bank robbery. Directed with quiet brilliance by the Safdies, this crime is an eerily low-key affair, almost a non-event. The bank teller is defiantly nonchalant about the hold-up. And Nick’s greatest concern during the job is the discomfort the rubber mask gives him. It’s such an exquisitely understated sequence, you almost think they’ve got away with it.
But then, in one of the many shocking moments of misfortune that the film engineers with sour comic timing, something goes wrong. The brothers are forced to abandon their getaway and, during a fantastic chase through a Queens shopping mall, Nick is arrested. Connie feels bad for his brother, especially when he hears that he is now in hospital, victim of an attack in prison (which the Safdies stage with unsparing brutality). So Connie decides to rescue his brother from his hospital bed, eluding cops stationed to guard him. It’s a sequence orchestrated with precision and near-unbearable tension, and Connie’s tightrope walk between recklessness and calculation is a thing of marvel.
The Safdies are like the unfeeling gods of Connie and Nick’s Greek heritage, tormenting their human subjects with increasingly cruel, blackly comic twists
But really that’s just the start of Connie’s troubles. Just when you think he’s in the clear, the Safdies concoct another crisis for him. Set mostly on the night of the hospital break-in, Good Time is in some sense a portrait of how much adversity one person can take (in Connie’s case: a lot). Towards the end there’s an aerial view of him running along a concrete walkway, trapped like a lab rat in a maze: you sense the Safdies are like sadistic scientists, or even the unfeeling gods of Connie and Nick’s Greek heritage, tormenting their human subject with increasingly cruel, blackly comic twists.
Along the way there’s much to savour: some remarkable night photography (scuzzy and lurid, the colours of a vivid dream), an all-too-short cameo from Jennifer Jason Leigh as Connie’s girlfriend, and a knockout scene in an after-hours ghost train ride involving an officious security guard and a bottle of hallucinogenic liquid that unfurls with surreal abandon.
Good Time is in cinemas from November 17