DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The directors Josh and Benny Safdie have attracted a passionate critical following with their films "Daddy Long Legs" and "Heaven Knows What," both portraits of troubled New Yorkers in desperate circumstances. Continuing in the same vein, their latest film, "Good Time," stars Robert Pattinson in a change-of-pace role as an amateur bank robber. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: In recent years, the British heartthrob Robert Pattinson has gone out of his way to prove that there is life after "Twilight." After years spent playing a shimmery, chivalrous vampire, he went all dark and dystopian in art house chillers like "The Rover" and "Cosmopolis," and he recently popped up in a terrific supporting role in "The Lost City Of Z." But Pattinson has never undergone a transformation as revelatory as the one he pulls off in "Good Time," a nerve-rattling new thriller from the sibling directors Josh and Benny Safdie.
Pattinson plays Connie Nikas, a scuzzy small-time crook from Queens who saunters through much of the movie sporting a gray hoodie, diamond stud earrings and a cheap blond dye job. He's somehow both a catastrophically inept criminal and a quick-thinking improvisational genius, a master at getting himself out of one hair-raising situation only to plunge himself immediately into another. Connie's undoing, as well as his sole redeeming quality, is his love for his hearing-impaired, mentally disabled brother, Nick. He's played in a brief but galvanizing performance by Benny Safdie doing a nice job of directing himself.
We first meet Nick when he's undergoing a psychiatric evaluation, and his gruff, one-line responses to the therapist's questions are a heartbreaking testimony to years of family neglect and abuse. Connie has suffered the effects of that mistreatment as well, but as played with agitated live-wire intensity by Pattinson, he's clearly chosen to rebel rather than buckle under.
Shortly after dragging Nick out of that evaluation, Connie makes him his accomplice in a shockingly clumsy bank robbery, played out with a mixture of tension, dread and dark humor that twists your stomach in knots. As they flee the bank, you can sense Connie's protectiveness toward Nick, even though it was foolish to endanger him in the first place.
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ROBERT PATTINSON: (As Connie Nikas) You were incredible. Do you understand?
BENNY SAFDIE: (As Nick Nikas) Yeah.
PATTINSON: (As Connie Nikas) I'm serious. You think I could've done that without you standing next to me, being strong? Are you feeling this? Are you feeling as good as I'm feeling right now?
SAFDIE: (As Nick Nikas) Yeah. I'm cold.
PATTINSON: (As Connie Nikas) You're cold?
SAFDIE: (As Nick Nikas) Yeah.
PATTINSON: (As Connie Nikas) Let's get to Virginia, man.
CHANG: Unfortunately, they won't make it to Virginia. A frightened Nick draws the attention of police and winds up getting arrested, leaving it to Connie to bust him out of jail. Over the rest of this movie's lean 100-minute running time, the Safdies sustain a surging narrative momentum, their handheld camera racing to keep up with the fugitive Connie as he dashes from one desperate encounter to the next. What makes "Good Time" such a thrilling action movie is that it's so minutely attentive to process. We're never allowed to get ahead of Connie because much of the time we're watching him think and maneuver his way out of each new predicament.
First, he tries to persuade his naive girlfriend, sharply played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, to post Nick's bail. When that doesn't work, he winds up prevailing on the hospitality of a 16-year-old stranger named Crystal, played by Taliah Webster with an amusing shrug of resignation. Later, Connie will find himself in reluctant cahoots with a fast-talking ex-con, Ray, played by the almost-too-perfectly named actor Buddy Duress, whose access to a stash of liquid LSD gives Connie an idea for another get-rich-quick scheme.
"Good Time" is a swift and relentless chase thriller, a sometimes appallingly funny problem-solving exercise, and an exhilarating mood piece that harks back to the gritty crime thrillers of quintessential New York filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet and Abel Ferrara. It's a feverish and enveloping exercise in style drenched in lurid neon reds and driven by the pure sonic adrenaline of Oneohtrix Point Never's electronic score. The combination of jittery camera work and tight, disorienting close-ups conveys both freedom of movement and a sense of entrapment. Even as these characters dash from one location to the next, you can feel the noose tightening around their necks.
But as brilliantly directed as it is, "Good Time" is more than mere flash and energy, and its air of pungent seediness is hardly just for show. In a movie that effortlessly embodies the ethnic and cultural diversity of New York City, it shouldn't escape our attention that Connie, despite his lowly upbringing, still enjoys a measure of privilege that some of the other characters do not. There's a scene in which he and Crystal are stopped by police and the cops proceed to target the black teenager rather than the white bank robber whose face has been plastered all over the news.
The Safdie brothers don't belabor the point. As the movie's title suggests, they certainly want you to enjoy yourself, but they've made the rare genre piece that leaves you feeling more connected to the real world rather than less.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic at The Los Angeles Times. On Monday's show, a talk with poet Molly McCully Brown about poetry, faith and disability. Her new collection of poems was inspired by the notorious Virginia State Colony, known for its practice of eugenics where persons of varying disabilities were committed. Brown grew up in the shadow of the colony and has cerebral palsy. Hope you can join us.
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BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Adam Stanishevsky (ph). Our technical director is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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