The fraternal directing duo of Josh and Benny Safdie make urban odysseys that flow with the quicksilver currents of New York. You can feel the gum-stained pavement under your feet. You can smell the Q train.
The Safdies were already an electric new energy in cinema — streetwise and scuzzy — but in the ironically titled caper “Good Time,” they have quickened their already kinetic pace. This movie, wild and erratic, is downright blistering. The opening credits, as if rushing to catch up, don’t appear until well into the film, after all hell has already broken loose.
Many of their gritty, abrasive tales emanate directly from the street; that’s where they found the homeless, heroin-addicted protagonist (Arielle Holmes) of their last film, the “verite” “Heaven Knows What.” The same could not be said for the star of “Good Time”: Robert Pattinson. The “Twilight” actor, captivated by a still from “Heaven Knows What,” contacted the Safdies, and out came “Good Time.”
It goes without saying that this is a long way off from “Twilight” — a franchise that, whatever its other attributes, has at least given us two of the most interesting actors of a generation. While Kristen Stewart has already won acclaim for herself in Olivier Assayas films and others, Pattinson has more quietly assembled an equally impressive filmography with the likes of David Cronenberg and James Gray, in whose “The Lost City of Z” Pattinson made a distinct (if heavily bearded) impression earlier this year.
In “Good Time” he plays Connie, one of two brothers from Queens. The other, Nick (played by co-director Benny Safdie), is mentally challenged. With no parents apparently on the scene, Connie is Nick’s keeper, and a highly questionable one at that. In the opening scene, he pulls Nick out of a psychiatrist session, admonishing him as they hustle down the hallway that it’s not where he belongs.
Connie believes in his brother — too much, you could say. Not moments after fleeing the doctor, he’s ordering Nick to put on a mask — a cheap, rubbery black face — and leading him into a bank robbery at a teller window. Not since “Dog Day Afternoon” has a more unprepared pair tried their hand at an ill-considered heist. They emerge with $60,000 in cash, but soon after their cabdriver picks them up, a dye pack explodes and the brothers spill out of the car in a cloud of red smoke.
From here it’s a nonstop free fall. Chased by the police, Nick crashes through a glass door and is arrested. Connie, desperate to put bail money together, first tries to take advantage of his better-off girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and, when that fails, improvises his way through increasingly audacious schemes in a nocturnal adventure that somehow includes trips to an amusement park, White Castle and a random household in which Connie takes the time to dye his hair blond. Along the way, Taliah Webster, as a black teen exploited by Connie, and “Heaven Knows What” actor Buddy Duress give terrific performances. (Duress’ entrance is alone worth the price of admission.)
In the annals of the crime film, the pulpy “Good Time” is roughly the opposite of something like the uber-professional thieves of “Heat.” At one point “Cops” is seen on a television, and these are the kind of dimwitted exploits that would fit right in there. But aside from being a devoted brother, the predatory Connie is also a clever, lecherous user of people.
Love was a drug for the smitten young woman of “Heaven Knows What.” For the brothers of “Good Time,” it’s an exploitation. But in the film’s headlong rush, the jailed Nick virtually disappears, and that feels like a mistake. If there’s a knock on “Good Time,” it’s that its sheer eagerness for anything unconventional comes at the cost of something deeper.
But what a trip it is. “Good Time” flies by in a rush of neon colors and the throbbing electro score of Oneohtrix Point Never. The cinematography of Sean Price Williams is exceptionally agile. In the style of Robert Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” Williams fuses grainy realism with frozen moments held in a lengthy zoom.
And in close-up we see Pattinson more clearly than ever before. His performance — sensitive and controlled amid the chaos — is easily the best of his career. But the Safdies, one suspects, are just getting started.