robert pattinson’s new film good time explores the gritty underbelly of queens
After seeing a press shot of one of their films, Robert Pattinson knew he had to work with the Safdie brothers. The result is Good Time – a view into the rough and tumble world of Queens, New York.
While Manhattan generally gets all the on-screen glory, the borough of Queens -- christened the number one U.S. travel destination in 2015 by Lonely Planet -- has discreetly woven its way into some of the most iconic and indelible stories brought to screen. Think Eddie Murphy as an African prince going undercover to find his future queen in Long Island City or America Ferrera as a geeky girl from Jackson Heights introduced to the backstabbing hijinks at an elite Manhattan fashion mag or the Goodfellas scene where Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta planned laying off a snitch in a neighbourhood diner. The latest addition to our very own Queens hall of fame: Robert Pattinson as a petty criminal on a rambunctious all-night mission to get his mentally challenged bro out of prison after their botched bank robbery.
Good Time, the film in question, is the latest offering by filmmaker siblings Josh and Ben Safdie, whose very anarchic body of work (Heaven Knows What, Daddy Longlegs) has provided viewers a window into a rough-and-tumble New York populated by thieves, junkies and miscellaneous marginalised tribes. But the kinetic and dizzyingly chaotic Good Time, released 11 August in the US by foolproof distributor A24 (Moonlight, Spring Breakers, Under the Skin), may be their most melancholy tribute to New York -- or rather, Queens -- yet.
"There's a yearning to leave Queens," Josh Safdie tells me at Montreal's Fantasia Festival last week, upon asking why he refers to the birthplace of Mobb Deep, Joey Ramone and Run-D.M.C. as the "tragic" borough. "A bunch of people I grew up with moved to the city (i.e., Manhattan) -- as in, they made it. They got out. Others still live on the same block where they grew up. Queens was originally designed as a retreat from the city and then it just kept sprawling out. The tragedy is it's not a place where you aspire to live in."
Pattinson's frantic character, Connie, doesn't merely aspire to decamp from Queens with his brother. His shady schemes and nocturnal misadventures are half-baked attempts at breaking free from a suffocating cul-de-sac of low wages and cold shoulders. The British actor's impulsive, adrenaline-fuelled performance deserves all the "career-defining" kudos it's been getting (he can finally put his neutered Edward Cullen days behind him). But the loopy Queens criminal isn't a part one would immediately tack on to the RPatz repertoire. Which begs the question: how did Pattinson even come across the Safdies?
"I had never seen any of their movies," admits the actor, "but I just felt this powerful connection to a promo photo from [their previous film] Heaven Knows What. I imagine it must have been very strange of me to send them an email and say, 'I've seen this photo, and I know I want to do a job with you.' I don't think I'd ever done that before. Then, the Heaven Knows What trailer came out and it was exactly what I wanted to do: a performance where every single character is very confrontational… not in any way passive."
That impulse resonated loud and clear with the Safdies, who don't exactly have a track record for pastel-hued understatement (nor do they cast franchise-film superstars). Still, there was hesitation. "I remember we had a conversation, like, 'what would we do with him?'" recalls Ben, who is electrifying on-screen in Good Time as Pattinson's brother Nick. "We had such tunnel vision."
"I've never seen a less conspicuous crew in how they moved. It's crazy. People literally had no idea we were shooting a movie" – Robert Pattinson
Truth be told, the pair had zero intention of making such a movie until Rob reached out. They were busy tweaking their Uncut Gems script -- a thriller set in New York's Diamond District, executive produced by Martin Scorsese, going into production at the start of the year. "Rob told us, 'I feel like we need to work together. There's this weird purpose in this image within me.' It was very Connie, and that was interesting to me," considers Josh. "Here's a guy who operates on a metaphysical level. When we met him, we realised he just has a lot of energy pent up and this yearning to break free. I wasn't interested in Rob playing a passive, brooding character. There's this PTSD quality within him; he moves around like he's been through war, constantly trying to hide from people and disappear. So it became about tapping into that on a performance level with the character and the writing."
Pattinson will be the first to say his celebrity status left him massively worried at the outset of Good Time. Shooting a hypnotic heist thriller with two of New York's most unorthodox indie auteurs, known for filming in real locations without permits, he wondered whether hordes of passers-by and subway commuters would see right through his peroxide head and pockmarked mug. "What I really loved about Heaven Knows What was the seamlessness of it, where the movie bleeds into real life and the crowds," he explains. "My experience shooting in New York years ago led me to think it would be physically impossible, but it actually never came up as a problem, ever. I've never seen a less conspicuous crew in how they moved. It's crazy. People literally had no idea we were shooting a movie."
To everyone's credit, there's nothing muted about Pattinson's performance and the film feels very embedded in a certain reality -- blue-collar underdogs, forsaken correctional facilities, eerie amusement parks and tawdry neon glows. The film even gets a (Cannes-awarded) screaming score courtesy of Brooklyn-based electronic producer Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never), heightening our visceral response to the siblings' doomed plight. In recounting the gruelling shoot, whether Rob's "extreme tiredness," a spectacularly destroyed Steadicam or a high-ranking New York gang member telling the film's stunt coordinator how to block a jail fight, every anecdote points to the great lengths taken by the Safdies to capture reality. "We were shooting in an active jail with lots of former correctional officers and people who'd recently been incarcerated, who we knew through friends or casting in halfway houses," remembers Josh. "What ends up happening is you get this weird Stanford Experiment vibe and when a riot breaks out in the film, actors just take on their roles. There's an actor supposed to be on the floor unconscious, I'm looking at the monitor, he jumps into the frame and he's now joining in this riot. So we create these environments and all we try to do as filmmakers is catch up to them."
Interestingly, Good Time's focus on overlooked characters struggling to break free is rooted in Josh's lifelong fascination with American criminals. While his own brief skirmishes with the law fuelled this interest, the influence of America's longest-running reality ride-along show, Cops, looms large. "I think crime is otherworldly in a way, and Cops really epitomises that," he points out. "In this totally exploitative format, you see cracks in the portrait of America, which is totally broken. It's like a game, 'where can we arrest somebody now?' If you think about that as an abstract thought, it's kind of fucked up."
Some of Connie's lines in the latter portion of the film sound like they were lifted straight from a Trump campaign rally. "It's a very libertarian mindset," says Josh. "[Connie] doesn't see organisations as tools to help people out, because they haven't worked for him. I do think, in a weird way, Connie represents the forgotten people of America -- the 40% of the country that did not vote. He's so dispossessed by the system. He abhors it and feels it's something he has to fight against, because all it's trying to do is numb, pacify and imprison. Connie is just trying to break free, and unshackle his brother from that world as well."