In Raising Arizona, H.I. McDonagh turns to Glen, the closest thing he has to a friend, and — perhaps softened for a moment by the beer he’s drinking — asks, “Do you ever get the feeling that there’s something powerful pressing down on you?”

On the surface, it’s just a set-up for a joke: Glen makes a smart remark about how he’s asked his wife to lose some weight.

But it’s also one of those moments when the Coen brothers let us know that there are serious concerns running through the veins of their exaggerated comedy. Those concerns are economic: H.I. and his wife Edwina are living at the poverty level, where a life of crime begins to look like the only way to keep a family afloat. What other option is there, when the government takes such “a bite” out of every paycheck?

Of course, before the movie is over, H.I. and “Ed” will have learned something more profound than an economics lesson. (Combine their names, and you get “High Ed.”) They’ll have learned something redemptive about love, grace, and hope. But does the audience have the humility to learn alongside some dumbass criminals?

When I introduce my film students to Raising Arizona, I almost always have one or two in the class who dislike the movie because they can’t find any compassion for a character who would commit a crime — even if it’s a comedy, and even if the character suffers serious consequences. But most of the students get it: They understand that any character who resembles a human being will have character flaws and make poor decisions from time to time. They understand that it can be worthwhile to zoom in on even a hardened criminal to consider the forces influential in such dangerous decisions, the forces that can direct a human being to dangerous and even deadly folly.

Many if not most master filmmakers — from Vittorio De Sica to Martin Scorsese, Luis Buñuel to Danny Boyle, the Coen brothers to the Dardenne brothers, Terrence Malick to Michael Mann — cannot resist making movies about men dragged into the undertow of crime. Their antiheroes compromise to survive. They compromise to get what they want. They compromise in anger, lashing out at a system that oppresses them. They compromise in a sense of cynicism, realizing that the people who make and enforce the laws are just as guilty (if not more so) of breaking them. They compromise for love. Or maybe they compromise for the love of the game, the thrill of the chase.

Antihero? Robert Pattinson plays a thief on the run in Good Time.

Antiheroes used to be a mark of cinema for grownups — stories of morally ambiguous characters for audiences who have enough experience with art and literature to consider nuance and to appreciate that the world can’t be conveniently organized into the Black Hats and the White Hats. In recent years, though, it seems that antiheroes have become the stuff of young-adult and even childrens’ entertainment.

Consider Harry Potter, who frequently bends and even breaks the rules to accomplish what he wants, and is eventually understood, excused, and even congratulated for his exploits. I’ve been more disturbed by some of the Potter stories than I have been by “harder” stories for adults about characters who behave far more dangerously, particularly because Potter is so young and naive and yet is always rewarded for transgressing boundaries set by his elders. If I were a parent, I wouldn’t want my child learning from that.

Consider how many of today’s young cinephiles grew up with the idea that vampires are admirable and sexy… or, at the very least, pitiable. Instead of Dracula — a sinister, manipulative, and extremely wicked invention who can serve as a metaphor for real-world evils — they picture vampires as being like Twilight‘s gaunt, fanged Robert Pattinson as a misunderstood romantic hero whose vampirism is not something he embraces but a curse he must conscientiously bear in order to live. In a sense, vampires have become just another class of sympathetic crooks, driven to lawbreaking by pressures beyond their control. I like the complexity of some of these films, and I think it’s irresponsible to portray any villain as irredeemable, as a lost cause from the beginning.

In view of all of this, I’ve been puzzling over two questions:

First: Can a movie still serve up a hardened criminal who is both truly human and yet also guilty of actual wrongdoing? That is to say — are we doomed to a cinema of villains who are either cartoonishly one-dimensional (and thus inhuman) or ultimately a victim of circumstance and beyond fault?

Second: Is the story of the criminal with a heart of gold exhausted? Shall we give it a rest for a while? It’s such a common big-screen theme that it’s challenging to find new narratives on the subject. What’s more, it’s hard to find filmmakers who aren’t, themselves, so seduced by the glamour of crime that their movies become fantasies that turn lawbreaking into a sort of dream life, an intoxication, a way to experience vicariously what we lack the courage — or the craziness — to commit in real life.

*

So here comes Good Time, the new Cannes-celebrated film by the Safdie Brothers.

With their first two releases, Daddy Longlegs and Heaven Knows What, they’ve won praise for their raw, riveting portrayals of characters caught in compromising circumstances — characters who win viewers’ sympathy despite dangerous inclinations. Now they’ve made their Taxi Driver, their defining film about a man whose experience has taught him that things like “law” and “order” are just obstacles in a game, and that the purpose of this game is to get his hands on the money it will take for him and his brother to live on the run. On the run from what? Clues along the way suggest an abyss of loneliness, disrespect, and perhaps some abuse. It’s as if they’ve never known a moral compass, experienced a loving family, or learned to think about the consequences of their actions.

The Safdie brothers have made an extreme film about extreme brotherhood.

Good Time will be the Safdies’ breakthrough to a bigger audience, largely because their lead character — Connie Nikas, the Energizer Bunny who compels the audience’s attention by running and running and running from one chaotic circumstance to the next and having the dumb luck to stay alive — is perfectly cast. If a film like this had been made in the ’70s, it would have starred Martin Sheen, halfway between the charismatic All-American Crook he played in Badlands and the All-American Military Hero broken down into savagery in Apocalypse Now. Connie needs to be handsome, charismatic, cocky, reckless, terrified, and unstoppable. So it’s something of a surprise that he’s played by Robert Pattinson.

But this isn’t the Pattinson we know. This is Pattinson reborn, an actor who has thrown caution to the wind. All of the restraint, the repression, the slow-burn, the simmering energy that made him a generation’s sex symbol in the Twilight movies has been cast aside. This can’t be the same actor who played a mumbling introvert hiding behind a bushy beard earlier this year in The Lost City of Z. This is an actor unhinged, charging through chase sequences with so much energy that he makes Baby Driver‘s Ansel Elgort look like a guy who wouldn’t know how to get a car from the driveway to the road.

The less you know going in, the better. Suffice it to say that Connie’s life only makes sense if he and Nick, his mentally disabled brother, are A) together, and B) free from the supervision of the grandmother who apparently raised them. Where are the parents? What happened to Nick, that he behaves like someone who suffered daily concussions as a child? The answer to that question is probably the key to understanding these two young men and their unnatural commitment to one another. But buckle up — this movie doesn’t have the patience to spell it out for us.

Most of this movie keeps us this close to our desperate characters.

How will Connie and Nick break free from “the system”? It doesn’t matter. Connie, declaring that nobody loves Nick as much as him, determines to make things up as he goes, dragging his bewildered-but-trusting brother with him. (The names are not accidental: We have the “Con,” a criminal mastermind, and we have “Nick,” which is a word for both a wound and a thief.) “The system” is anything that would separate the brothers or keep them from living independently, doing whatever they want whenever they want.

So that includes the psychiatrist (Peter Verby) who, in the opening scene, seeks to help Nick find the resources that he needs to live safely, securely, and under proper supervision. It’s probably not an accident that the movie opens with a psychological interrogation a test that vividly recalls the Voight-Kampff interview at the opening of Blade Runner. The Safdies immediately want us wondering just how many pieces are missing from the Nikas brothers’ minds and hearts, and just what has brought them to this place of desperation.

But “the system” also includes love. Connie’s older girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who seems doomed, since The Hudsucker Proxy, to play women so wretched and lost that they’re almost intolerable) is clearly important to him only as a resource for money and transportation and anything else he might need to keep his desperate life together. He’ll drop her the moment she’s in the way. The same goes for the grandmother that he and Nick abandoned.

Don’t worry — Pattinson isn’t sucking Leigh’s blood. (Or is he?)

And so the film becomes a rush, as Connie draws his brother into a bank robbery scheme and a flight from the law — one that separates the brothers and sets the stage for Connie’s most desperate acts. When he and Nick get separated, we stick with Connie until the end of the film, tracking his efforts to reunite with his brother, find the money they’ll need to get away, and exploit anybody he encounters (a shuttle driver, an elderly stranger, an underaged girl, a drug dealer) to stay ahead of the cops.

It’s easy to excuse Nick, Connie’s brother. While he’s prone to violence, he also gives us plenty of evidence that he’s survived plenty of violence that came at him unprovoked. His participation in a pre-school-level care-center exercise late in the film reveals, for those paying close attention, just how lonely his life has been, how his world is entirely empty except for that single thread of faithfulness he has found in his brother. Played brilliantly by Benny Safdie, one of the co-directing brothers, Nick is an easy case for empathy.

But Connie is more complicated. We can see him sometimes pausing, held up by the faintest flicker of conscience: offering a sip of juice to a hospital patient whose room he is using as a hideout, or pausing to regret having drawn a minor into his scheme to recover misplaced drug money. But most of the time he is knocking people down without mercy, doing whatever he can to stay on the run.

Taliah Webster plays a teenager who has the bad luck of running into Connie Nikas.

And he makes it happen. Like a Looney Toons character, he gets in and out of the most impossible situations. In aerial shots of his car on the road or his bright red jacket burning like a comet through alleys and streets, he sometimes looking like Pac-Man trying to escape ghosts in a maze. He’s not opposed to draining the bank account of an old woman by manipulating her dim-witted daughter, beating someone to the edge of death in order to steal their clothes as a costume, or setting a ferocious pit bull on someone he has baited into believing is his partner.

Pay attention, and you’ll notice that there is something distinct about Connie in this cast of characters. He’s the handsome white male. Give him a chance, and he’ll dye his hair blonde. Is the secret to his success as simple as white privilege? Does he tend to command every scene that he enters by quickly asserting himself as an authority, and the rest of the world must comply or be smacked down? He’s not the biggest guy in the film. He’s not the strongest. He’s not even necessarily the smartest. But he gets away with everything.

In an interview on All Things Considered, Benny Safdie says, “I do think that [Connie] is a mentally ill person himself. … He’s going to surround himself with people like him.” In that sense, viewers might have good reason to read the film as a political commentary: Is this a film about the madmen running the country, about rich white racists who surround themselves with people as perverse as themselves because they know their unjust privilege empowers them?

“I think I was a dog in a previous life,” says Connie. “In fact, I know that I was. That why they love me so much.” The claim is preposterous — not his claim of reincarnation, but his claim of being loved. Who loves him, really?

Can we love him? I dare say that the Safdie brothers do: They film him his boundless energy in a state of reverent awe . But will audiences embrace him? Is he empathetic enough that he becomes a legitimate antihero?

I’m not so sure. Connie bears wounds that inspire genuine concern, but his hell-bent inclinations make him, in my opinion, more a force to be feared and stopped than one I would hope to see break free.

*

I am making Good Time sound heavy and profound. And it has all the ingredients of a complex and rewarding psychological thriller.

But the film’s overpowering — I’m inclined to say overbearing — aesthetic is one of hyper-saturated colors, extreme noise, and constant sensory overload. I’m sure this is meant to represent the panic-attack existence of its protagonist. But the effect is one of constant interruption, of preventing the audience from having any chance to reflect on Connie’s choices and consequences. That may be the point: When you live in this state of desperation, you don’t have the luxury of a conscience. Maybe this is a movie meant to be deconstructed and discussed, not meditated on as we watch. If so, I can appreciate that.

But after a while, I found myself detaching from concerns about the characters, and falling in love with the kaleidoscopic colors, lights, shadows, and sounds instead. Good Time works much better for me as a run through a psychedelic amusement part, tethered to a tour guide who has lost his mind. I suspect that the films aspirations to seriously explore subjects like “white privilege” are largely hindered by its method.

Recalling David Thewlis’s ferocious intellectual vampire in Naked, Connie is lost without a moral compass.

The soundtrack, in particular, goes from supporting to overwhelming its subject. It’s like being stuck in an ’80s video arcade in which all of the synth-y sound effects are syncopated and harmonious and yet seem to be competing for dominance. The music is a bit like Vangelis on speed, too, which is, come to think of it, another suggestion that Blade Runner is a major influence here. If I’m supposed to notice the relationship between the two films, does that suggest that the Safdies wonder if these brothers have been “programmed,” designed to live a life of uncontrollable impulse, so much so that they they seem mystified by their own occasions of conscience? Perhaps. But Blade Runner brings us to a place of spiritual awakening, to the beginnings of self-knowledge and redemption. Such things seem beyond the capacity of Connie Nikas.

If you come away from Good Time with enough presence of mind to feel heavy-hearted over the lack of love in this movie’s world, instead of buzzing with glee over its rollercoaster ride, I’d say that you have a particularly resilient and powerful conscience, one that can withstand quite an assault on the senses. That probably says more good things about you than it does about the film.

In view of cinema’s ongoing love affair with criminals, I’m interested in Connie’s unique commitment to self-destructive momentum.Is he a tragic figure, a champion of brotherly love, a psychopath, a genius, or all of the above? If he’s related to any other movie monster, he might be closest to the human meteorite played by David Thewlis in Mike Leigh’s Naked — a seemingly unstoppable figure of arrogance, contempt, and bloodthirsty opportunism.

In his monstrous compulsions to lure others into his schemes, drain them of their resources, and cast them aside, Connie Nikas looks to me like the first real vampire that Robert Pattinson has ever played.