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Robert Pattinson is electric in Good Time – one of the best films of the year

There was a time, not that long ago, when the accolade “career-best performance from Robert Pattinson” meant very little – a matter of Twilight enthusiasts debating which hormonal teen vampire movie features the best performance from the British heartthrob. Now, at least for those who have been following Pattinson work the indie film circuit, directed by the likes of David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis) and David Michôd (The Rover), it means a little more.

And it will mean a lot more, going forward, in the wake of the terrific crime drama Good Time: a full-throttle whack of streetside adrenaline, with an electric, celebrity-shredding performance from Pattinson. Just as Sean Baker’s 2015 iphone-shot indie Tangerine hovered around LA corners and laneways, sidling up to sex workers and scallywags, co-directors Josh and Benny Safdie render New York in fascinating not-on-the-brochure tableaux: gritty and gutter-real on one hand; highly stylised on the other.

I love the colour grading and cinematography of Sean Price Williams, whose neon tones and luminous, artificial glares earmark a film very much of the streets – as if his frames have been infused with the glow of a tacky electronic sign, or the flashing lights of a police car. We’ve walked the streets of this city before – the Skid Row-like locations and down-at-the-heel tone making Good Time more Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets than Woody Allen’s Manhattan – but rarely does it feel like this: real, vivid, thrilling.

The Safdie brothers (working from a script co-written by Josh and Ronald Bronstein) began developing the project after Pattinson approached them having watched their previous film, Heaven Can Wait. In a recent interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Benny reflected that they had nothing in the works that suited the actor, but “it became clear there was something interesting about him. There was this fear of being seen, this fear of being caught. We wanted to work with that idea, and that’s how the film started.”

Perhaps this ad hoc, intuitive approach helps explain the film’s freshness; it’s spunk and vitality. Like the recent, and similarly fine Hell or Highwater, Good Time is a drama about brotherly love by way of an on-the-lam bank robbery movie, this one with a day-in-the-life-of twist (taking place over 24 hours). The Safdie’s trade Highwater’s post-GFC, ravished-economy allegory for Trump era despondency: the feeling there’s nothing left to fight for, except maybe a few duffel bags of cash on the way down.

Brothers Connie (Pattinson) and Nick (Ben Safdie) get one of those bags from a bank job, but there are complications. One concerns Nick’s unspecified learning disability, which won’t allow him to graduate to criminal mastermind any time soon. We see him probed in a close-quarters, expertly staged opening sequence, by a social services shrink gauging his reactions (it feels almost like the intro of the original Blade Runner) to expressions such as “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” and “don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched.”

Just when we feel we might be getting somewhere, Connie storms into the room, busts the scene wide open, and grabs the remainder of the film in a chokehold. After a daring and, again, close-quarters bank heist, Williams’ cameras shooting within sweat-smelling proximity, the brothers run away with the dosh but get separated. Connie meets a dope-smoking teenager (Taliah Webster) who becomes a quasi get away driver.

There are bust-outs and break-ins, genre elements giving the film’s verisimilitude a pacey, red-blooded kick: more hardboiled on-the-street drama than social realism. Good Time has a gut-punching sting to it, trimmed to a taut 101 minutes and buoyed by several faultless performances. In the primary role Pattinson has the wild, lit-fuse, bullheaded flair of a young Pacino or DeNiro: a screen-quaking performance that is both intensely visceral and heart-on-sleeve.

Good Time is not a film built around star power; the foundation is nervy drama and sheer authenticity. It is perhaps the finest single-night-on-the-town crime film since Michael Mann’s Collateral. And certainly one of the best, most humanly and visually interesting films of the year.