In the lowlife picaresque “Good Time,” Robert Pattinson delivers what some will surely call a career-making performance, especially if they’ve missed his impressive turns in such similarly non-“Twilight” indies as “The Rover,” “Maps to the Stars,” “Queen of the Desert” and “The Lost City of Z.”
No matter. Connie Nikas, Pattinson’s stumblebum character in “Good Time,” feels reverse-engineered to allow the former teen screen idol the attention he deserves for serious-acting chops, checking every box from aggressively antisocial tendencies to a startling physical transformation. As “Good Time” opens, Connie bursts into an office where his hearing-impaired and cognitively delayed brother Nick (Ben Safdie) is being questioned by a well-meaning therapist. Connie arrives just at the moment when a seemingly long-buried trauma is surfacing, which alerts the audience to the multivalent irony of the film’s title: No matter how noble the intentions of even the most optimistic protagonist, there’s something to be said for good timing.
And some old-fashioned smarts and self-awareness wouldn’t hurt either.
As Connie leads Nick on what begins as a caper and ends in his own increasingly hallucinatory journey through the neon-lit underworld of Queens, “Good Time” takes the shape of movies we’ve seen before. One scene elicits memories of “Dog Day Afternoon,” while others recall “Midnight Cowboy,” “Mean Streets” and “Panic in Needle Park.” In a manic, dead-eyed rendition of an antihero who’s one part Charlie Manson and one part Kurt Cobain (especially after an ill-advised dye job), Pattinson infuses Connie with both charm and malevolence. He’ll do anything to get what he wants in the course of a fateful night of his own misbegotten making. In the name of fraternal loyalty, he’ll manipulate himself into the pocketbooks and good graces of anyone whose path he crosses, whether it’s the frowzy, magical-thinking woman he’s dating (played with ditsy pathos by Jennifer Jason Leigh) or the wised-up but clearly vulnerable teenage granddaughter of a Haitian immigrant (Taliah Webster).
Co-directed by Safdie with his brother Josh, “Good Time” bears some resemblance to their previous films, “Daddy Longlegs” and “Heaven Knows What,” both of which gave viewers an unsettlingly intimate glimpse of overwhelming love borne of dysfunction and dead ends. “Good Time” traffics in the same sentiments, but it also represents an artistic leap forward, both in its debt to canonical thrillers and its improbably rich look. Sean Price Williams, who shot “Heaven Knows What” as a gritty vérité-like piece of street art, here embraces a far more elegant, composed sense of visual beauty, occasionally leaving behind tight, jangly close-ups to take to the skies and deliver exhilarating views of the Queens streets down below. (“Good Time” was shot on 35 mm film, and it has the texture and translucence to show for it.)
As Connie trips the night fatalistic, a shaggy-dog story turns out to contain yet another shaggy-dog story, with the fablelike weirdness of “Good Time” taking on a harder edge by way of the assaultive, techno score (by Daniel Lopatin, under the recording alias of Oneohtrix Point Never) and Connie’s own increasingly off-putting sense of exceptionalism. At one point, now conspiring with a hangdog miscreant named Ray (Buddy Duress), Connie delivers a screed against dependency that somehow mashes up Freud and Ayn Rand with his own supreme hypocrisy. He has a way of saying “God bless you” just before he tricks yet another mark into helping him down his particular road to hell.
Many of those victims are immigrants, making “Good Time” feel authentically of its time and place, especially when two black characters — and not Connie — are reflexively apprehended by the police. But the filmmakers choose to keep the film’s politics buried under the surface of Connie’s lunkhead-on-the-lam hop from bail bond office to bodega to pizza joint to hospital. (Josh Safdie wrote the script with his longtime collaborator Ronald Bronstein.) A climax set in a hellish after-hours amusement park pushes “Good Time’s” visuals — and the audience’s patience — to their limit. What starts out as an invigorating odyssey winds up becoming an enervating series of postures. For all of the Safdies’ prowess, and Pattinson’s willingness to tarnish and rough up his own celebrity persona, there’s little by way of deeper meaning to a pulp thrill ride that turns out to be as petty as Connie’s crimes.
R. At Landmark’s E Street CInema and ArcLight Bethesda. Contains crude language throughout, violence, drug use and sexuality. 100 minutes.