Before seeing Good Time, I was convinced the only movies I’d see set in my home borough would be either biopics, movies about Kitty Genovese, or Spider-Man adaptations. Despite being the largest and most diverse part of New York, it just didn’t seem like filmmakers were aware of Queens’ own unique character the same way they are of Manhattan, Brooklyn, or the Bronx (Staten Island doesn’t count.)
That all changed for me with one shot in Good Time, as Connie (Robert Pattinson) looks at an in-car subway map, and the screen vignettes around the dot representing the Woodhaven Blvd stop. The darkness creeping in from the edges of the screen until only Woodhaven was in focus perfectly captured a feeling that I, and I believe anyone who’s ever lived in Queens, knows intimately – that taking the subway through Queens in the middle of the night is in itself Odyssean. It’s the beginning of a trip that you know will take way too long, be way too stressful, and leave you emotionally and physically drained; and sure enough Good Time follows that experience to a tee. I didn’t even have to look it up to know that the directors, Josh and Ben Safdie were Queens kids; after that single shot, I just knew.
Good Time is about Connie, a two-bit criminal just smart enough to keep getting himself into more and more trouble, trying to get his intellectually disabled brother Nick (Ben Safdie) out of jail after a bank robbery gone wrong by – you guessed it – committing a string of even more petty yet serious crimes. It’s a twelve or so hour long conga of miscellaneous misdeeds that takes Connie, and anyone unfortunate and unfortunately dumb or gullible enough to get pulled into his schemes, all through Queens and even out to a third-rate Long Island amusement park that I have been to in real life on way to many summer-camp field trips. It’s a pitch-black comedy of errors about the criminals too inglorious and pathetic to be noticed in any other borough in the city.
And, despite its cast of almost uniformly unsympathetic lowlifes, Good Time cares about each of them, and makes you care too. You can tell this just from the camera’s seeming allergy to any shots wider than a close-up. The first shots of this movie are of Nick’s puffy, pore-filled face as he’s being asked questions by a social worker before Connie “heroically” busts in the room to drag is brother on a bank robbery with him. And there’s an honest to goodness love in that first scene. Above all else, the one thing the movie establishes about Connie is that he loves his brother, and that everything his does is his fucked up way of helping him. This relationship is where Connie, and the movie, finds its humanity; and it’s a spectacular feat of Pattinson’s to hang on to that humanity over the movie’s 100 minute runtime. The camera’s fondness for close-ups accentuates this by filling the screen with Connie’s face in almost every shot, allowing us to see the rusty gears clicking into place as he adjusts to whatever fresh hell he’s made for himself and plans his next move.
Good Time is a movie that cares about its characters so much that it puts a stop on its otherwise breakneck pacing in order to show us the backstory of a character introduced as a punchline at the end of the second act. And it can get away with this because it’s the sort of movie that sets us up to immediately want to know about this character as soon as he’s introduced. It’s the movie basically saying “I got you” in response to a question it makes the audience ask; and that Good Time can pull off this sort of thing is proof of how good the Safdies are at crafting the experience of watching their movie.
As the movie goes on, and you spend more and more time being assaulted by Good Time’s heavy droning electronic soundtrack and grimy neon drenched outer-borough, you’ll start to understand the discordant state of mind Connie is in as finds himself in increasingly outlandish situations of his own design in the middle of the night. Exhausted, resource-less, and hunted; his desperate struggle towards family becomes sensually empathetic if not sympathetic. Good Time is an uncomfortable and a frazzling experience; but one that engages as well as it uneases. And there are just enough laughs peppered throughout – dark laughs, but laughs – to keep things from getting oppressive. It doesn’t paint the most flattering picture, but Good Time is a portrait of Queens and the people who live – exhausted – on the edge of the city that never sleeps.