The title of "Good Time," a nerve-jangling new thriller from New York-based directors Josh and Benny Safdie, is uttered briefly in the movie's final moments by a character of little consequence. In that rather forlorn context, the words come off as despairing and more than a little ironic, the cruel kicker to a story about a few lowlifes caught up in a swift-moving cycle of crime and punishment, desperation and greed.
But on another level, the title isn't ironic at all. At once a swift, relentless chase thriller and an exhilarating mood piece that recalls the great, gritty crime dramas of Sidney Lumet and Abel Ferrara, "Good Time" is also exactly what it says it is: a thrill, a blast, a fast-acting tonic of a movie. There may be something counterintuitive about a picture of such crushing personal lows sending you out of the theater on such a potent cinematic high. But then, the Safdie brothers have always been counterintuitive in their focus on the kinds of men and women who dart through life with neither plan nor purpose, their tempers flared and their nerve endings exposed.
The directors' two prior feature-length collaborations — "Daddy Longlegs" (2009), an empathetic portrait of a raging and remarkably unfit father, and "Heaven Knows What" (2015), a harrowing chronicle of junkie anomie — drew their material from the stuff of real life, as borne out by their refusal to traffic in easy narratives of redemption or uplift. "Good Time" proves similarly allergic to compromise, which is fairly remarkable, considering that this time the Safdies have not only filtered their lower-depths poetry through the prism of genre but they've also cast an honest-to-God movie star.
That would be Robert Pattinson, the 31-year-old British heartthrob who came to fame playing a shimmery vampire in the "Twilight" movies — a blockbuster association that Pattinson, not unlike his former costar Kristen Stewart, has quietly and fastidiously dismantled. He has done this in part by working with some of the more interesting names in world cinema, like David Cronenberg, who mined the actor's previously hidden depths in the 2012 art-house chiller "Cosmopolis," and James Gray, who cast him brilliantly against type as a real-life Amazon explorer in this year's "The Lost City of Z."
"Good Time" is Pattinson's breakthrough, the most sustained and revelatory transformation of the actor's career and, not coincidentally, the most extreme of his recent efforts to thwart the audience's sympathies. The young man in question is Constantine Nikas, a.k.a. Connie, a scuzzy small-timer from Queens who dashes through much of the movie sporting stud earrings, a gray hoodie and a hastily applied blond dye job. He is both a catastrophically inept criminal and a nimble improvisational genius, a master at getting himself out of one hair-raising situation only to plunge himself immediately into another.
Connie's sole redeeming quality is his love for his brother, Nick, a hearing-impaired, mentally disabled young man played with galvanizing vulnerability by Benny Safdie (doing a nice job of directing himself). We first meet Nick during a psychiatric evaluation, and as he utters a series of gruff, one-line responses to the questions posed by the therapist (Peter Verby), an entire history of neglect and abuse emerges in every pause.
Into the room storms Connie, who has clearly chosen to rebel against the Nikas family's mistreatment rather than buckle under, if Pattinson's agitated live-wire intensity is any indication. Shortly after dragging Nick out of the evaluation, Connie, promising a big payday and a fresh start in Virginia, makes his brother an accomplice in a shockingly clumsy bank robbery that plays out with a stomach-knotting mix of tension and dark humor.
After a few startling setbacks and botched getaways, the hapless Nick is arrested, leaving it to the fugitive Connie to bust him out of jail. With practiced nerve and an often appallingly funny approach to problem-solving, Connie starts by trying to get his tetchy, naive girlfriend, Corey (a sharp Jennifer Jason Leigh), to post his brother's bail. That plan quickly fizzles, but it's still an amusing introduction to a character who seems to have emerged fully formed from a movie of her own — one you'd gladly follow her back into if this one weren't so compelling.
The same could be said of a fast-talking ex-con, Ray (played by "Heaven Knows What's" almost-too-perfectly named Buddy Duress), whose access to a secret LSD stash sends Connie on yet another harebrained get-rich-quick scheme. Most affecting of all are an elderly Haitian immigrant (Gladys Mathon) and her sardonic 16-year-old granddaughter, Crystal (Taliah Webster, a newcomer and a natural), whose seemingly limitless patience and hospitality Connie prevails upon after one particularly narrow escape.
The screenplay, written by Josh Safdie and his regular collaborator Ronald Bronstein, may have contrived these supporting characters to steer the plot from one complication to the next, but on-screen, they feel like nothing less than the camera's brilliant discoveries. By blurring the line where narrative expediency ends and shrewd slice-of-life observation begins, the filmmakers have made a breathless, propulsive action movie without stinting on any of the close-to-the-skin realism that distinguished their earlier work.
That realism doesn't preclude a surfeit of style. When cinematographer Sean Price Williams isn't sending the camera zooming across the city in overhead establishing shots, he's locking the actors in tight, jittery closeups that convey both mobility and entrapment. The faster these guys run, the more the noose tightens around their necks. The action tends to play out in cramped, squalid settings — the back of an ambulance, the interior of a jail cell, the dark rooms of an apartment that briefly becomes the saddest of safe houses.
The Safdies have fun saturating their images in pulsing neon reds and turning up the pure sonic adrenaline of Oneohtrix Point Never's electronic score, but their pulse-quickening flourishes feel entirely of a piece with the matters at hand. And at every moment, their attentiveness to process gives "Good Time" a razor-sharp focus and a bristling, moment-to-moment unpredictability. The story never gets ahead of itself, or allows us to get ahead of it; most of the time, we're caught up watching Connie think his way out of every predicament.
And, in turn, doing some thinking ourselves. In a movie that effortlessly embodies the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Safdies' home city, it shouldn't escape anyone's notice that Connie, despite his lowly upbringing, enjoys a measure of social privilege that some of the other characters do not. Blink and you'll miss the curious fate that befalls a black security guard (Barkhad Abdi, an Oscar nominee for "Captain Phillips"), or the pointed moment when a couple of police officers, spying Connie and Crystal together, proceed to target the African American teenager rather than the white bank robber whose face has been plastered all over the news.
The filmmakers don't belabor their point; as that title suggests, they certainly want you to enjoy yourself. But they've made the rare genre piece that refuses to equate entertainment with an escape from reality, or to turn a tale of foolish men into a celebration of stupidity. The greatness of Pattinson's performance makes it awfully hard not to root for Connie Nikas, but that's no reason to mistake him for the hero.
Rating: R, for language throughout, violence, drug use and sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood, and the Landmark, West Los Angeles