The masterfully scuzzy feel-bad Good Time is the kind of movie that demands consideration for all the post-YA choices Robert Pattinson has been making. In the five years since The Twilight Saga ended, series co-leads Pattinson and Kristen Stewart have pursued acting careers seemingly engineered to put as much ground as possible between them and the glittery supernatural romance that turned them into highly scrutinized international stars. Stewart's transformation into an art-house and critics' darling has been well-documented, from the meta-commentary of her roles as celeb assistants in Olivier Assayas's Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper to her part as a queer object of desire in Certain Women.
Pattinson has attained less acclaim for what he's been up to, though it's been similarly ambitious and auteur-driven. He played a limo-riding billionaire on a journey of self-destruction in David Cronenberg's chilly, underrated Cosmopolis and then, perfectly, turned up as a limo-driving struggling actor in the Canadian filmmaker's followup Maps to the Stars. He worked with Anton Corbijn and Werner Herzog in biopics Life and Queen of the Desert, neither of them particularly good, but both indicative of good taste in directors. He was intriguing as Guy Pearce's captive turned sidekick in the dystopian The Rover, and quietly terrific as Charlie Hunnam's employee turned respected colleague in The Lost City of Z. Like Stewart, he's seemingly been freed up by getting to play characters who are, at best, spotlight-adjacent, ones who aren't outsized but who are perfectly to scale.
That’s definitely the case with Good Time's Connie Nikas, an aspiring lowlife who embarks on a neon-lit crime spree through Queens after a violent offscreen clash with his grandmother and a botched bank robbery. As Connie, Pattinson does not jerk off a dog, despite what you may have heard from talk show anecdotes, but he does engage in a lot of other eyebrow-raising activity. He breaks someone out of police custody, seduces a teenager, and beats a security guard into unconsciousness. The movie, which was directed by brothers Benny and Josh Safdie, portrays Connie as a guy who's not half as smart or as good at big-picture planning as he thinks he is, but who shows a sly animal cunning in his moment-to-moment interactions. His overestimation of his criminal competence is the reason he spends most of the film on the run from the cops, trying to salvage a plan that didn't seem all that feasible to begin with.
Connie's adventures on the lam in the ungentrified reaches of the outer borough unfold like a comedy of errors in which our scumbag hero inflicts a terrible orange-blonde bleach job on himself as a disguise and breaks into an amusement park to try to figure out where someone out of their mind on acid would hide cash. Only Connie's desperate improvisations are rarely all that funny, not when he brings disaster into the lives of everyone he touches — a one-man infection who gets more dangerous as the night gives way to morning. The chief and most painful bit of collateral damage is Nick (Benny Safdie), Connie's developmentally disabled brother, who he convinces to take part in a fantasy of stealing money and starting a new life together in Virginia. It's a scheme that lands Nick in jail, where he's an easy target, before the film's opening credits. Connie spends the rest of Good Time trying to get Nick out, though the more we get to know him, the less he seems capable of being the kind of caretaker Nick needs, even before he involves him in a felony.
Connie is mesmerizing and awful, leaping from one dire situation to the next like a polar bear navigating melting sea ice. But Pattinson is great, carrying a film that sits entirely on his rangy shoulders, the handheld camera frequently jammed up tight on his face as he searches for a way out of whatever predicament he's landed himself in. He plays the character as a kind of anti-heartthrob, with not a wisp of outlaw cool to his behavior, and when he levels his battered looks and charm at women he wants something from, like the unstable Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and the achingly young Crystal (Taliah Webster), you feel nothing but alarm. It's a performance that rests on an understanding that humanizing someone and making them likable need not be the same thing at all.
We come to understand Connie pretty well by the end of Good Time, just from seeing how he operates — his puffed-up grandeur, his sense of wounded injustice, his ruthlessness. The film invites you to care about what happens to him without rooting for him, especially in its final act, when Connie and Ray (Buddy Duress), the fellow traveler he's picked up along the way, kill time in a stranger's apartment. The sun comes up, the atmosphere acquires the pinched feeling of an impending monster hangover, and it becomes increasingly clear that whatever happens to Connie, he's not going to figure out a way to fix the mess he's made. And yet that's when he lays into Ray, sneering at this fresh-out-of-prison doofus he doesn't want to admit is his funhouse reflection, and proclaiming his superiority to the "fuckup," despite the two men being in the same dire situation.
You understand, at that moment, that Connie's contempt is part of his world view, that he gets his highs off having someone around to look down on, push around, or control. It's a revelation that casts his relationship with his sibling in an even darker light, because Nick is so obviously vulnerable to manipulation. Connie genuinely loves his brother, but it's a toxic kind of love, the kind where you'd readily drag someone down with you rather than risk being alone. Good Time starts and ends with Nick, but the film belongs to Connie, and to Pattinson, who lives and breathes the young man's poisonous desperation. It's the kind of performance that sticks with you, like a layer of grime that needs to be washed off.
Alison Willmore is a film critic for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Alison Willmore at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.