As many commentators have noted, “Heaven Knows What,” the previous film by Safdie brothers Benny and Josh, essentially revisited the territory covered in 1971 by “The Panic in Needle Park”—the grim, destructive reality of drug use. Their latest seems to take as its model another Al Pacino vehicle of the seventies, “Dog Day Afternoon.” The ironically-titled “Good Time” uses a bank heist as the basis for a character study that, in the end, is another intense, convulsive Safdie exercise in urban nihilism. Buoyed by a take-no-prisoners turn by an almost unrecognizable Robert Pattinson, however, it represents a considerable advance in purely cinematic terms, though the bleakness of tone, despite periodic bursts of gallows humor, will feel oppressive to many viewers.
The picture opens with Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie), a mentally challenged young man, being tested by a therapist (Peter Verby) at what is apparently a government treatment facility, presumably prior to his being enrolled in a permanent program there. Just as the questioning starts to uncover hints of a violent home life, the session is interrupted by Nick’s nervy, volatile brother Connie (Pattinson), a scraggly low-life who leads Nick away as the therapist futilely objects.
One might think that Connie intends to protect his brother somehow, but instead he makes him his accomplice in a bank robbery that initially seems to go well enough, despite Connie’s obvious amateurishness at such things, but turns out badly, with Nick under arrest and Connie on the run, desperately trying to raise the cash needed to bail him out. After an appeal to his druggy girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh, superb in what amounts to a cameo) sputters out, Connie breaks a bandaged man under police guard, whom he believes to be Nick, out of the hospital, and embroils a woman (Gladys Mathon) and her sixteen-year old daughter Crystal (Taliah Webster, in a beautifully natural debut) in helping them.
Once the bandages are removed, however, the guy turns out to be not Nick but a just-out-of-prison hell-raiser named Ray (Buddy Duress), whose stream-of-consciousness rant about his post-jail adventures gives Connie an idea about raising the cash he now needs more than ever. Ray knows about a bottle of LSD hidden in the Adventureland amusement park, and if they can retrieve it, they might be able to sell it for big bucks. Of course, they’ll have to endanger Crystal and deal with the place’s security guard (Barkhad Abdi), but Connie’s the sort of fellow who’s never reluctant to put others in the crosshairs in order to achieve his immediate end.
Connie is the centerpiece of the action throughout, appearing in virtually every scene, and Pattinson grabs the character from the very first and never lets up, gleefully embracing his quicksilver changes of mood and a cunning ability to react to every situation by trying to turn it to his advantage, though even he seems haunted by the knowledge that the likelihood of things turning out well is slim. It’s an aggressively propulsive performance that conveys the character’s desperation while indicating that a real concern for his brother exists, however inept Connie is at finding a way to express it.
Pattinson isn’t the whole show, though. In addition to Leigh and Webster, Safdie offers a convincing glimpse of a man trapped in trauma he doesn’t understand and can’t express, and Dupress brings unbridled energy to the flamboyant but pathetic Ray. Abdi adds telling touches to what might have simply been a stock character, too. Adding to the film’s nearly surrealistic vibe are Samuel Lisenco’s production design and Sean Price William’s cinematography, which periodically introduce a spurt of visual grotesquerie in the form of explosions of color or weirdly off-putting compositions, to the gritty urban landscape. The propulsive, non-stop tempo is perfectly captured in the virtuoso editing of Benny Safdie and Adam Teninbaum, complemented by the equally pulsating score of Oneohtrix Point Never.
“Good Time” may not provide what the title promises in any conventional sense. In this case, however, there are rewards of a different sort—more challenging but also more compelling.