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At this stage, Robert Pattinson should no longer be synonymous with that sparkling punchline of a vampire Edward Cullen. If anyone watched press junkets the young heartthrob did for the Twilight series, they’ll know that he not so inconspicuously derided the franchise that launched his career through oft hilarious and smarmy verbal takedowns of the (un)romantic and borderline predatory character he played. The real distancing act though has been attempted through the supreme side roles he’s given us in stellar arthouse vehicles like Childhood of A Leader and The Lost City of Z. It’s his commanding, lived-in performance as Connie Nikas in the Safdie brothers Good Time, however, that should convince everyone he’s finally shed that shiny skin he’s never been quite comfortable in.
Good Time fires an opening salvo that sets up the hopeless scenario in visceral fashion. A touching cold open sees a therapist screening the clearly mentally challenged Nick Nikkas, played with consistently dumbfounded distress by co-director Ben Safdie. Nick had apparently assaulted his grandmother in a burst of confused anger, but before he get the help he needs, his brother of too much influence Connie (Robert Pattinson) bursts in, drags him out of the room and sets in motion a sequence of events that will spell disaster for the both of them.
In a taut, blindsiding 10 minutes that follows, the film steamrolls us with fist clenching tension. The brothers Nikkas rob a bank, a dye pack explodes in a taxi a causing a crash, red-stained clothes are frantically washed in a public restroom and a police foot chase resulting in Nick’s eventual capture all occur before the opening credits roll proper. Throughout this erratic, burst of energy of a sequence the superb soundtrack by avant-garde electro artist and mouthful Oneothrix Point Never is an ever-present sonic representation of anxiety. The searing severity of the synths are like the heartbeat of the film itself, replicating or perhaps even controlling the cardiac muscle bpm of an exhausted audience.
Nick, terrified and perplexed, ends up in a holding cell on Riker’s island prison surrounded by violent criminals as Connie realises he must make up ten grand in a one-night crime spree to pay the bail bondsman and get his brother out. With mixed results, Good Time then settles itself. People who might have been hoping for a non-stop, stuck in fourth gear all in a night thrill ride, as the trailer suggests, may leave the theatre a rather disappointed with the noticeably slower detours. Jennifer Jason Leigh gives a rather hammy take on infantilised middle-aged girlfriend of Connie’s and some momentum is lost in an extended period in an elderly woman’s house that goes on a bit longer than it needs to.
For the most part though, The Safdies have constructed a thrilling, right smack down on the pavement exercise in futility. In its own way, Good Time is an inversion of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, in that this time the doltish brute is the one who’s more intelligent, and well-meaning, but self-destructive and the source of problems for the both of them. The Safdies’ take on the big apple is far cry from the squeaky clean gentrified vision offered by Bill De Blasio’s New York. Instead this NYC evokes the seedy underbelly we saw in the steam ridden streets of classic 70s cinema. Neon-splattered bondsman offices, drug fueled degenerates and brawling cell blocks offer us a picture of the increasingly hidden New York distinct from the one owned by the foreign billionaires who never even visit.
When Connie teams up with another criminal Ray, the schemes get more haphazard and the film rejuvenates itself as it zips along frantically towards an ominous conclusion. A highlight comes in the form of Ray recounting how he ended in the hospital after a stint in prison: the mini acid trip/odyssey through an arcade, a house of horrors and a moving car offer a humorous and oddly heartfelt aside that doubles as a masterful showcase of economic character development. Equally moving are the final scene and closing credits, scored by a beautiful Leonard Cohen-influenced collaboration between Iggy Pop and Oneothrix Point Never, in which see self-sacrifice of one brother was the only means of salvation for another.
As for Pattinson, he has solidified his position as a star of sleazy worlds and smaller projects. His presence here could have been a distraction but it’s surprising how easy you could imagine him — filled with illicit toxins — staggering off a public bus somewhere in the Bronx armed with a fifth of vodka and ready for another night of felonious fun. With his bottle blonde hair, reckless ambition and conniving sensibility, Connie Nikkas is a character that needs the feel fully inhabited to be believed and the former Harry Potter actor fits that gritty, glib glove unexpectedly well.
Good Time is imperfect but nonetheless feels like the vital injection of vibrant, vérité filmmaking that New York cinema needs. Naturalistic and necessary, this a scorching expedition into the convict corners of a concrete jungle. The Safdies’ commitment to hyperrealism — using real therapists, mental patients and actors who have spent time in prison — pays tremendous dividends on the screen. The frost of every icy breath induces chills, every sauntered step on the concrete resonates and every punch from a blood-soaked fist connects. But even as dread looms for the depraved main players in this fluorescently lucid carnival ride, the camera lens is an empathetic one. The Safdies may never condone what the actions of the characters in their films, but they do understand them.
Good Time is in cinemas now. View the trailer below.