The unnerving crime thriller “Good Time,” directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, moves like a streak, barely able to keep up with its characters.
The reckless, selfish, charismatic man at its core, Constantine “Connie” Nikas, is a small-time Queens, N.Y., hustler of Greek-American extraction. He’s played by Robert Pattinson, who is nearly unrecognizable, a twitch in perpetual motion, a fast talker and a user of everyone around him. Connie is a fabulist and a weasel, and Pattinson’s characterization makes each sweaty chapter of this crime story fascinating.
It’s not simply Connie’s story. The opening scene belongs to his brother, Nick (played by co-director Benny Safdie). In tight, intimidating close-ups we see Nick in a drab office with a court-appointed psychiatrist (Peter Verby). As the doctor questions the developmentally and hearing-challenged young man, we learn bits and pieces of what Nick and Connie have endured living with their abusive grandmother.
Connie bursts into the room, interrupts the session, and busts his brother out so that they can embark on the adventure of their lives. There’s a bank robbery on the agenda. Connie convinces Nick he can do it; he tells him he has the stuff it takes to commit a crime.
Wearing racially provocative masks, the Nikas boys dash with the money, but the good times promised by the title prove slippery. The robbery goes flooey, and Nick winds up in the hospital after a brutal beating he suffers on Rikers Island. Where the Safdie brothers take the story from there becomes a dizzyingly plausible odyssey of improvisation, a survival game of perpetually shifting rules.
Two key supporting characters, two among many to suffer at Connie’s hands, are black. Several critics have leveled charges of racism at “Good Time,” and at the Safdies. Connie at one point knocks on the door of a random house, and within minutes a 16-year-old girl (Taliah Webster) becomes his confidante and an accomplice of sorts.
The action rolls on to Long Island and the Adventureland amusement park, where a night security guard (Abdi) runs afoul of Connie in a painful way. Pattinson’s character exploits and discards everyone in his blinkered life, including his girlfriend (Leigh), either for money, shelter or self-interest. The police keep giving him a break because even in his socioeconomic strata, he enjoys a full load of white privilege.
The racial undercurrents in “Good Time” are harsh and not entirely resolved, but it’s part of a legitimate and seriously affecting picture of where we are in America today. Most crime movies make it easy for the audience to take sides and establish clear rooting interests. “Good Time” is better than that: It’s not always easy to take, yet you can’t look away.
Rated R for language throughout, violence, drug use and sexual content. 1:40. Hamburg, Kentucky.