The melting pot that is New York City keeps churning with the decades, as wave after wave of new immigrants reclaim neighborhoods abandoned by earlier arrivals outbound for Long Island, New Jersey or “upstate” (as defined by metro-dwellers). In my online-research meanderings I recently breezed past a real estate ad beckoning wannabe Manhattanites to “trendy Rivington Street,” and just had to laugh. Circa 1980, my job at an independent film not-for-profit, about to be priced out of increasingly hip SoHo, occasionally required a visit to a sister organization located on Rivington – half a block off the Bowery, back in the days when the phrase “Bowery bum” still meant something. A short trek crosstown still meant being panhandled by winos, and Rivington Street itself was developing a reputation as downtown’s busiest drug supermarket.
The Lower East Side had by that time already morphed from a haven for Jews fleeing the pogroms in Eastern Europe into Loisaida; but gentrification rolled on, and soon Latino and other new immigrants began setting their sights on cheaper digs in Queens. That borough – populated mainly by working-class Italian and Irish families when I grew up there – has become such a multiethnic patchwork in recent decades that the volatile TV bigot Archie Bunker would no longer be able to walk out his front door without lapsing into xenophobic catatonia. That mighty sage Wikipedia flatly states that today, “Queens is the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world.” There are whole neighborhoods now that are not simply Latino or Caribbean, but specifically Dominican. Fully a quarter of the borough’s population is of Asian descent. And so on; the 2020 census will doubtless tell us a new story.
This fluxing reality, of course, makes Queens as much of a lure to modern filmmakers as Manhattan was last century. That’s not to say that we won’t still see scads of movies shot in Manhattan; the types of accents heard in the bodegas will continue to hint heavily at the decade in which the story is set. But, whereas in the earlier days of moving pictures the City’s diversity was used to create atmospheres of charming small villages blossoming within a teeming metropolis, side-by-side with the penthouse lifestyles of the tap-dancing rich and shiny, younger auteurs today seem to be reveling in the tawdriness and desperation to be found in Queens, among the newly arrived and the barely employed. For Josh and Benny Safdie, indie co-directors who grew up in the borough, its harshly neon-lit boulevards lined with strip malls, car dealerships, check-cashing joints and White Castles are the perfect setting for their über-edgy new caper movie, Good Time. This seems likely to prove the brothers’ breakthrough flick, affording erstwhile Twilight franchise star Robert Pattinson a chance to show that he really can act, with a vengeance. It’s as an emotional bloodsucker, rather than an emo vampire, that the guy truly gets to, erhm, sparkle.
If your ideal caper movie is suffused with an aura of romance, sophistication and exotic locations, Good Time is not the outing for you. It’s noir at its most harsh, gritty and grimy and nervewracking, populated almost exclusively by dumb, abrasive losers, fully complicit in their own undoings. It’s visually ugly – though paced, shot and edited with admirable storytelling economy and technical skill – and propelled by a brilliantly unsettling, breakneck electronica score by Oneohtrix Point Never.
If Rain Man were to be remade by Quentin Tarantino, the result might be something like this film. The closest approximation to a sympathetic character in Good Time is Nick Nikas (played by Ben Safdie himself), a developmentally disabled man who is shown in its opening scene as utterly unable to grasp metaphors or empathize with other people. Nick’s cognitive therapy session is rudely interrupted by his brother Constantine (Pattinson), who thinks that therapy is bullshit and besides, he needs Nick to help him pull off what may be the worst-planned bank heist in cinema history. The best that can be said about Connie is that he seems to love and feel protective of his hapless brother, in a warped, codependent and abusive way.
Connie Nikas is not a guy you’d want protecting you; he’s a compulsive user. Every life he touches gets dragged down into the maelstrom of his desperate impulsivity, narcissism and chutzpah. And therein lies our story: The bank robbery goes awry; Nick ends up in Rikers Island and then in a Queens hospital, from which his brother decides, plausibility be damned, to spring him. Pattinson is consistently mesmerizing as an amoral opportunist who, while not the sharpest tool in the shed, has an astonishing facility for improvising, charming and bullying his way out of the consequences of his own blundering brainwaves – up to a point. Mid-caper, Connie’s luck runs out, with a twist that it would be a shame to spoil, and the stakes go higher and higher as the character wades ever-deeper into the Big Muddy. If there’s a moral here, it’s that perpetually acting on the spur of the moment, however creatively, is apt to get one impaled.
Chief among the collateral damage strewn in Connie’s wake are Buddy Duress as Ray, a new parolee who dives unhesitatingly back into his pre-conviction life of staying stoned at all times; Taliah Webster as Crystal, a bored, jaded teenager coerced into sheltering the fugitives; Barkhad Abdi as Dash, a night watchman who interrupts their search for a drugs-and-cash stash in an amusement park funhouse; and a largely wasted Jennifer Jason Leigh as Corey, Connie’s clueless girlfriend. The film’s female characters are all tossed-off sketches; nor are any of the many people of color in the cast developed much beyond being treated as tools or victims.
Pattinson’s vivid, hyper, dazzlingly foolhardy onscreen presence is front-and-center here, and mostly what makes Good Time worth watching, along with its turn-on-a-dime technical chops. The Safdie brothers’ career as a filmmaking team, unlike Connie’s as a criminal mastermind, seems to be on the upswing.