What if I’m not the hero ... what if I’m the bad guy?
Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) asks Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) this in Twilight (2008) during a moment of existential angst. He’s recently done a very good thing – saved Bella’s life – but he’s not an orthodox hero. This tension between whether Edward is good or bad extends throughout the Twilight series because he’s a vampire, one of the undead, or as he refers to himself, a monster. He loves Bella but his motives, because of his nature, are always a little murky. This bountiful grey area between heroism and villainy is one that Robert Pattinson has plunged deep into since the end of the franchise that made him a star. It’s in this space, too, that he’s revealed who he is as an actor.
Pattinson entered the Twilight universe brooding. With his strong jawline and intense eyes, he seemed marked for a particular career – romantic leading man, teen heartthrob, cinematic object of desire. His appearance on People’s Sexiest Men Alive list two years in a row didn’t help. Nor did the fact that he played Edward Cullen like James Dean, a rebel vampire with a tortured soul. But unlike Dean, the critical consensus during Pattinson’s service to the Twilight series was that he was both inexpressive and expressed too much. In short, it was decided that Robert Pattinson couldn’t really act at all.
Pattinson’s filmography since the end of Twilight reads like an exercise in negating this belief. In 2012, he made the first of two films with Canada’s master of the dystopian uncanny, David Cronenberg. In Cosmopolis (Maps from the Stars would follow in 2014), Pattinson is Eric Packer, a cool, cocky, 28-year-old billionaire and prince of industry, who we follow as he slowly makes his way around Manhattan from the back of his cyber-outfitted, custom-built limousine. His mission is to get across town for a haircut; but the President’s visiting, and the city (and Eric’s limousine) is besieged by anti-capitalism protests.
With his unscrupulous greed, Eric makes Edward look like an angel. But it’s his ambiguities – that grey area – that fascinate. Cosmopolis capitalises on a certain blankness and aloofness in Pattinson’s screen persona. Like Twilight it asks us to focus on the actor’s eyes. It opens with them hidden behind dark sunglasses, creating a distance between him and us. He only removes them once he briefly enters his wife’s taxi, which pulls up alongside his limousine. Eric says to Elise (Sarah Gadon), “I haven’t seen you in a while.” Pattinson’s eyes don’t give much away in Cosmopolis – they are controlled and unemotional, a perfect fit for the film’s detached, unnatural dialogue. But as Eric starts to unravel – tie loosened, jacket off, and finances in free fall – they soften and tell us everything. Where Eric starts out a hollow man speaking words like a robot, by film’s end, he’s vulnerable, exposed, and has nothing left to lose. Pattinson shifts the register of his performance from blankness to animation, almost like a tease, not long before the screen goes black.
In the five years since Cosmopolis, Pattinson has continued to pursue work with auteurs (he’s currently working with Claire Denis on her English language debut, High Life, due out in 2018), taking on supporting parts, and morphing into a character actor. He’s harnessed Edward Cullen’s cartoonish intensity into something darker, richer, and more mysterious. He tames it, for naïveté and menace respectively, in The Rover (2014) and The Childhood of a Leader (2015). In James Gray’s The Lost City of Z (2016) he turns it inwards, playing second fiddle as Henry Costin to Charlie Hunnan’s Percy Fawcett , obscuring his gaunt face behind glasses and an unkempt beard. An intelligent, contained performance, Pattinson leaves us wanting to know more about Costin – not because he tells us nothing, but because through small gestures he suggests a life that exists beyond the screen.
Most importantly, Pattinson has embraced the challenge of playing unheroic, ethically dubious men. Edward’s question about whether he’s a hero or a bad guy is one we must also ask of Constantine ‘Connie’ Nikas, the low-level con artist Pattinson plays in Good Time, the latest film from The Safdie Brothers. Since Good Time premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, commentators have been quick to explain that Pattinson is completely ‘unrecognisable.’ It’s more accurate, I think, to suggest that what Pattinson does as Connie is to expand on something in his performance style that has always been there. In Good Time, Pattinson’s potential for darkness is dialed up to eleven. Much of this intensity is once again focused on his eyes; his wired unblinking expression, captured often in close-up, becomes the hook on which he hangs his entire performance.
If Pattinson’s past roles have been classified by their stillness, Connie, who is on the run, rarely stops moving. Connie is a creature of the night, haunting the streets of Queens as he tries to find the $10,000 required to pay his mentally handicapped brother, Nick’s (Benny Safdie), bail bond. The caper that unfolds traverses a grubby, neon landscape. The Safdies have long been interested in characters on the margins, from their second feature, Daddy Longlegs (2009) to Heaven Knows What (2014), and their breathless vision of New York is closer to Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) and Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975) than any slick, glamorous contemporary versions.
Pattinson fits right in, conjuring a taut, manic energy that propels him through the streets. It’s not a pretty world, and the actor makes himself ‘ugly’ for it, sporting a scruffy goatee, greasy hair, and eventually a bad peroxide dye job. There’s something foul inside Connie too. He’s a cunning manipulator, making one bad decision after another, unconcerned with who gets caught in his messes, including a number of African-American characters that he’s able, all too easily, to shift blame towards. His love for his brother suggests a huge heart. But we can’t forget that Nick is in prison because of Connie; his recklessness points to a dangerous amorality.
While Edward Cullen was motivated by love or lust and some understanding of what is right, Connie Nikas fascinates because we don’t really have a complete grasp on his impulses. The Safdies have created a protagonist who lives and breathes squarely in the grey zone, the space in which Pattinson really shines and extends himself. Is Connie trying to do right by his brother, or is he fuelled solely by desperate self-interest? By the film’s exhilarating conclusion, we are none the wiser. We like him and we loathe him. He’s conned us too.
Joanna Di Mattia is a film writer from Melbourne, Australia. Her criticism can be found at ACMI, SBS Movies, The Big Issue, Senses of Cinema, Kill Your Darlings, Real Time Arts and The Seventh Row. She also blogs, irregularly at In A Lonely Place.