Make no mistake about it, the riveting film Good Time is not about a good time at all.
Nominated for the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, the thrill ride from American directors Benny and Josh Safdie about a botched bank robbery was originally conceived as a prison film. The title was to refer to a prisoner's good behaviour while incarcerated. The script evolved into something different, but the title stayed.
Given the nature of the film – a study in flailing, pathetic desperation – the title becomes ironic. The problem with that?
"We are not," Benny Safdie says, "ironic people."
What they are, are New York people, specifically people of Queens, where the gritty feature is set.
Good Time, which received a six-minute standing ovation at Cannes in May, stars Robert Pattinson as an incompetent New York criminal who robs a bank with his slow-minded brother, played by Benny. After the daylight robbery goes wrong, the story follows Pattinson's character in a spiralling bid to salvage something out of the situation.
The film recalls elements of Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and, for its whatever-can-go-wrong-does-go-wrong series of calamities, Martin Scorsese's 1985 black comedy After Hours. (There's plenty of black here, but little or no comedy.)
Fans of the Twilight movies know Pattinson as distinctively handsome – his brooding, male-model prettiness instantly recognizable on screen. Except, not so much in his role as Constantine (Connie) Nikas in Good Time, where he transforms himself, strikingly, into a feckless Queens hooligan.
"He took it to the other level," Josh says on the phone with his co-directing brother. "He was able to catch this feeling of a New Yorker, without having something from his own background to pull from."
The brothers took Pattinson in character to supermarkets and subways in Queens, but he was never recognized. "He embedded himself into the role and dove head-first into it all," Josh says. Given that the action is mostly seen from the point of view of Pattinson's character, his immersion was essential. The audience is with him, at his speed, which is often a breakneck and white-knuckle pace.
Curiously, the initial bank-robbery scene, while nerve-wracking, has Pattinson's character in his most calm, composed mood of the film. Having the robbery scene less chaotic than the hectic string of situations that follows was intentional – a slow-moving train to step on to for the feverish pace of the hell-ride to come.
"We needed the audience moving at his speed and on his frequency and not to waver from that," Benny says. "Because if you do waver, you're going to start asking questions we don't want you to ask right at that moment in the theatre.
"We want you to be asking them when you're done with the film."
Plenty of time for that.