‘Good Time” is a prime example of what the cynical or the uninterested might dismiss as “feel-bad cinema” — low budget, kitchen-sink realism about unpleasant people in worse situations. It also happens to be one of the most uncompromising movies I’ve seen all year: vibrant and desperate and alive, it’s a work hanging on by its fingernails. If you lament the loss of that gutter ferocity with which filmmakers like Martin Scorsese once walked the Earth, brother, here’s your cinematic B-12 shot.
Oh, and it re-establishes Robert Pattinson as one of the most charismatic actors of his generation. Yes, the “Twilight” dude. That Pattinson and his one-time costar Kristen Stewart have given two of 2017’s best performances (hers was in “Personal Shopper”) is among the year’s weirder but more cheering ironies.
The actor plays Constantine “Connie” Nikas, a petty criminal from Queens whose only redeeming feature is his love for his brother Nick (Ben Safdie), a mentally challenged lummox. Despite their bond — and mutual dislike of the aged grandmother who’s their only visible family — the brothers have entirely different metabolisms, Nick shambling along at 16 rpm and Connie spinning like a wired, antic 78.
“Good Time” follows these two on a long, incredulous night of disaster that starts with a botched bank robberty and goes south from there, and if you’re in the right sick mood it might strike you as a comedy, so thoroughly are Connie’s bad ideas undone by reality. (If you’re not laughing, you’ll most likely be horrified.) There’s an unlikely escape from a hospital, a visit to a bail bondsman who holds all the cards, an attempt to con one of Connie’s old girlfriends, Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who’s even more of a neurotic mess than he is.
Connie’s a user and Corey’s just used to being used; the watch-between-your-fingers entertainment of “Good Time” lies in how the hero has to alter his plans again and again, to diminishing returns. A case of mistaken identities results in the appearance of Ray (Buddy Duress), a young punk who makes Connie look like an upstanding citizen by comparison. Perhaps that’s a stretch; the latter’s queasy seduction of a willing 16-year-old (Taliah Webster), mostly so he can get to her grandmother’s car, is the moment you’ll either choose to go along with the filmmakers’ vision or turn against the movie entirely.
Those filmmakers are Josh and Benny Safdie, brothers who came out of Boston University a decade ago and conquered Cannes with their first feature, “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” (2008). If that film owed perhaps too much to the directors’ film-school influences, by “Heaven Knows What” (2014), a scarifying but empathetic tour of New York’s heroin street scene, the Safdies had come to seem rough young masters, incapable of putting their cameras in the wrong place.
“Good Time” continues the streak, but with muddier intentions. Unlike in “Heaven,” the main characters aren’t victims but victimizers (they’re just really bad at it) and most of Connie’s victims are hard-working people of color at the bottom end of the socioeconomic ladder. Who are the Safdies laughing at? Connie? Those unlucky enough to cross his path? Us? Are they even laughing at all?
At times the film itself could pass for felony assault, with its claustrophobic close-ups and a soundtrack by the electronic musician known as Oneohtrix Point Never that expands upon every 1980s synth score you wish you’d forgotten. Like a gritty chunk of vintage grindhouse coughed up on the shores of the new millennium, “Good Time” is all about the moment and never about the backstory. (The Safdies filmed it in 35mm, but it feels like 16mm dragged down an alley — beautifully so.)
So you might hate this movie, but with a passion that almost proves its power. Anyway, when was the last time a film grabbed you by the lapels and refused to let go? Much of what makes “Good Time” work is Pattinson, whose red-rimmed eyes bore into the camera with electric intensity. He’s smart enough to get us to feel for Connie and even understand him without ever asking us to like him.
Duress is equally strong as Ray, the punch-drunk devil on Connie’s shoulder. But it’s Pattinson’s movie. By the time the two come to ground in a tatty amusement park after hours, surrounded by the House of Horrors and a leering Tunnel of Love, stalked by a security guard (Barkhad Abdi of “Captain Phillips”) who’s the only decent person in the entire movie, you understand that Ray is just visiting this freakshow. A guy like Connie has never left and never will.
Directed by Benny and Josh Safdie. Written by Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein. Starring Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Buddy Duress, Taliah Webster, Jennifer Jason Leigh. At Kendall Square. 100 minutes. R (language throughout, violence, drug use, sexual content).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.