Good Time: a grittily authentic heist movie

Robert Pattinson, left, and Benny Safdie star in Good Time.

Not even five minutes into Good Time, I felt fairly certain that I was watching one of the best films of 2017. The movie opens on Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie), during an interview already in progress with his psychiatrist. Nick's developmentally disabled, made evident by his stunted speech and simplistic answers to basic word association questions. The camera is up close and intrusive on the actors' faces (a stylistic choice I almost always hate, but this time it really worked for me). Suddenly, Nick's brother, Connie (Robert Pattinson), bursts into the office and pulls his brother out of the interview. (Amid the commotion, listen for the shrink's perfect line when he says to Connie, "Shame on you.") From there, Connie whisks his brother off to commit a bank robbery, chaos ensues and BAM!—the words GOOD TIME scroll across the screen like an ominous promise. I'm thinking: "This is a movie after my heart! But we've got 95 more minutes to go—don't let me down."

Brothers Benny and Josh Safdie direct the picture, from a script by Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie. (Their 2014 Heaven Knows What about heroin addicts in NYC waits with bated breath for you on Netflix.) The IMDb plot description for Good Time speaks vaguely of a bank heist gone awry. Armed with only this, I steeled myself for a slick production featuring guys in cool clothes meticulously planning a wildly implausible plot with sexy women waiting in their wake, a la the Ocean series or this summer's Baby Driver. Imagine my delight, when instead, I got grimy, poor and desperate people improvising their way through New York City's seedy underbelly.

From here, let's explore the plot gingerly: Nick got picked up shortly after the bank heist, and Connie's in a frantic pursuit to raise the bail money to spring him from jail. Along the way, we meet a series of mesmerizing characters. There's his rich, disturbed girlfriend, Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a bail bondsman who barely bats an eye at ink-stained cash, a Haitian grandmother and her impressionable granddaughter, an Adventureland security guard (played by Barkhad Abdi, the Somalian actor you might remember from his Academy Award-nominated line: "I'm the Captain Now" in Captain Phillips)—and the list goes on.

Good Time employs a blend of established and amateur actors to populate a world we so rarely see on screen with any real authenticity. The bail bondswoman, shrink and grandmother are those things in real-life, for example. Much has been made of Pattinson's transformative performance, and holy Lord, what a boring observation. I get it, it's a far cry from his turn as a vampire in the Twilight series, but it's his job to pretend to be other people, is it not? Pattinson's performance is invisible, visceral and perfect—the same as everyone else.

From the start, Good Time pummels us with non-stop action and hardly any exposition. This is a movie that respects us so much that it defines its characters not by who they say they are, but by what they actually do. In Connie, we have a charismatic and cunning psychopath from Queens who does terrible things. Still, he's motivated by springing his brother out of jail, and so we can't help but root for him.

I've overheard talk from people who feel squeamish about the title. These characters do dastardly things, and so to call it a "good time" implicates us in ways we'd rather not confront. In fact, the movie offers multiple meanings, and if you have the courage, you can find yourself in every one of them.

Good Time opens at the Roxy Fri., Sept. 8.

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