It's always fascinating to watch a performer's career progress after they find stardom through a singularly iconic role. Both Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe have been able to transition into a career beyond "Harry Potter," and post "Twilight," Kristen Stewart has transformed into an unlikely critic's darling with terrific performances in indie dramas from "Certain Women" to this year's "Personal Shopper."
Meanwhile Robert Pattinson, Stewart's co-star in that star-crossed vampire franchise, has had a slightly harder time of it. But as he's begun seeking out directors of a singular vision — Werner Herzog, David Cronenberg, James Gray, and soon Claire Denis — he's been gradually finding roles that show off his talent.
That slow and steady rise now builds to his revelatory performance as a desperate small-time crook in the grimy crime-thriller "Good Time." Between this and "Personal Shopper," who knew the stars of "Twilight" would be responsible for two of my favorite performances of 2017, so far?
Pattinson plays Constantine Nikas, one half of the would-be outlaw brothers at the center of Josh and Benny Safdie's urgent exploration of criminal and familial responsibility. The other half of that equation is Connie's mentally handicapped brother, Nick (played by Benny Safdie).
The film opens on a meeting between Nick and his court-appointed psychiatrist (Peter Verby). It's a session that comes to an abrupt end when Connie summarily barges in and removes his brother. Dragging his sibling away from what seemed on its way to being a beneficial conversation, we get the sense that Connie has a difficult time acknowledging that there's anything different about his brother and the way he relates to the world. In practice, being so fiercely protective blinds Connie to his brother's very real needs.
We're never privy to the circumstances that led to Connie becoming Nick's sole caretaker, but with his knack for spectacularly poor decision-making, Connie is clearly a terrible influence. He eventually gets his brother wrapped up in a bank robbing scheme, which inevitably goes wrong, and the vulnerable Nick is apprehended and taken into police custody.
With a gritty immediacy, we follow an increasingly frazzled Connie on a whirlwind tour through New York City's underbelly as he desperately attempts to put together enough money to get his brother out of jail. Connie sets about trying to free his brother by any means necessary, never for a second considering that Nick might be better off without him.
The journey eventually leads him into partnering with squirrely criminal Ray (Buddy Duress) for a scheme involving a Sprite bottle full of LSD and a bundle of cash hidden somewhere inside an amusement park funhouse. There are other characters unfortunate enough to wander into Connie's path: his naïve and unstable girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whom he hopes might spot him some of the money needed to post bail; and an elderly woman and her teenage granddaughter, Crystal (newcomer Taliah Webster), who Connie literally seduces into helping him out. Then there's Barkhad Abdi as the amusement park's security guard with the bad luck to be working on the night Ray and Connie come to collect.
The Safdie brothers previously directed the druggy love story "Heaven Knows What," based on the life of that film's star Arielle Holmes and her experiences with heroin addiction. Written by Josh Safdie with regular collaborator Ronald Bronstein, "Good Time" matches that previous film's raw, scuzzy realism with a vivid intensity all its own — the film justifiably earned a Palme d'Or nomination at this year's Cannes Film Festival.
Cinematographer Sean Price Williams saturates the frame in neon-lit reds, greens, blues, and oranges as he juggles between handheld closeups that highlight the characters' desperation, and sending the camera soaring overhead to follow them as they barrel down the city streets. Daniel Lopatin's electronic score lends the images a propulsive, unnerving energy.
As Constantine, Pattinson is brilliant, delivering a magnetic, live-wire performance that's far and away the best work we've seen from him. You don't root for Connie so much as watch, utterly enraptured, waiting to see what depths he's willing to sink to. Like a cornered animal, Connie attacks anyone he deems a threat at any given moment.
As tense and exciting as "Good Time" often is, it brings with it a sobering undercurrent that takes it beyond mere escapist entertainment. Calling to mind the recent "Lady Macbeth," the film follows a protagonist who takes advantage of the societal privilege they have and don't mind the harm they cause those who lack that privilege. The filmmakers make sure we notice, for example, the way in a key moment Crystal draws more police attention than the bank robber standing right next to her. As Connie bulldozes over anyone in his path, the Safdies never ignore the human casualties he leaves in his wake.