God’s Pocket is one of the last films starring Philip Seymour Hoffman to reach us (A Man Most Wanted will follow in a month or so, and the less said about his digitised presence in the remaining The Hunger Games installments the better), so its easy and also unfortunate to see why this feature has received, at best, lukewarm critical response. Viewed through the shards of loss, it’s not had to imagine that a lot of those watching have been waiting for some final masterstroke or revelation, magically caught on film like some beacon from the afterlife. The film even opens at a funeral. Going into God’s Pocket, I couldn’t help but wonder if critics have been genuinely disappointed with the film, or the fact that it reminds us that we’ve lost a great actor.
Coming out of the film, I wrestled with the realisation that it’s a little of both.
Directed by Mad Men‘s John Slattery, the film is adapted from an early novel by Peter Dexter (The Paperboy). Set in the eponymous Philadelphia suburb, it tells the tale of blue-collar grifter Mickey (Hoffman), a man who provides the community with spuriously-obtained cuts of meat. He’s well-meaning, but not adverse to moving around the law to rub two dollars together. When his vile son-in-law Leon (Caleb Landry Jones) meets an unexpected end on a construction site, Mickey struggles to quickly get the money together to pay for the funeral. As his efforts turn into a minor three-day odyssey of mishaps, his grieving wife Jeanie (Christina Hendricks) is preyed upon by local celebrity, journalist and alcoholic jackass Richard Shellburn.
Clipping in at a breezy 89 minutes, there’s not an awful lot to God’s Pocket, and it readily feels like a case of book-to-film. There’s a sense that Dexter’s prose must pick at details that Slattery’s action can’t pause for, yet equally a painterly sense of atmosphere and mood is created. Quite what the intention is, though, is a little more problematic. Producer and DP Lance Acord (Lost In Translation, Adaptation) seems set on evoking this low-brow working class neighbourhood by presenting it in the dimmest lighting he can afford. It slots Slattery’s film in with other recent(ish) tales set in inner-city boroughs, such as The Town or Welcome to Collinwood, but goes one grimier. God’s Pocket is presented as a dwindling rust-belt cul-de-sac where a drinking problem isn’t necessarily a problem, and the residents are all doomed to their endless and inevitable misfortunes.
If that all sounds too grim to contemplate, then Slattery attempts to leaven the situation with pockets of slapstick humour, most of which revolve around the misadventures of the late Leon. It butts up queasily with the more subdued tone that the film takes elsewhere. In fact, it’s just as awkward as the bursts of unexpectedly brutal violence that scatter the movie also. God’s Pocket‘s three main gears are cruel, funny and sad, and it shifts between them awkwardly.
Nevertheless, there are little treasures to be found. Chiefly, these are wrought by the fine performances from all involved. Nobody showboats here. This isn’t that type of film. But there is some quietly impressive work. Hoffman’s previous form makes his down-trodden schlub Mickey seem like work with the meter running, but he still nails it, while it is Hendricks who is easily the most affecting. Her scenes with Jenkins (at his most loathsome) are heartbreaking.
Elsewhere, Glenn Fleshler (who I’m suddenly seeing everywhere in the wake of True Detective) puts in another small but commanding performance as the construction site’s foreman. A few more of these imposing, larger-than-life appearances and he may upstage John Goodman as my dream-pick to play The Judge in a movie of Blood Meridian that shouldn’t be made anyway. It’s not all good news, however, as John Turturro simply gets lost in the shuffle. He’s good, don’t get me wrong, but there’s simply too little for him to do.
The following paragraph contains spoilers, so you may wish to skip ahead.
So, while there are problems here, it’s worth noting that Slattery’s movie kept me immersed from beginning to end. The end, though, is one of the more problematic elements. Having opened with narration from Jenkins, it’s return feels like a natural (if neat) finale. Then Slattery makes an alarming decision and has his cast respond en masse to Richard Shellburn’s backhanded compliments by giving the man a resounding kicking for his final thoughts, leaving him crumpled and possibly dead on the streets of God’s Pocket. An abrupt, if not wholly unearned fate, it is then followed by something even more left-field. A brief, sunlit skip-ahead, so different in tone and aesthetic consistency from everything that preceded it, that it feels almost like a dream.
You probably didn’t want to know about that. But it bears mentioning because it has an effect on the movie as a whole. Not being familiar with Dexter’s novel, I can’t say for sure if it’s faithful to the source, but I’d be surprised if it was. The strange weave of the final scenes speak of the overall inconsistency of the film as a whole; a scrappy, semi-shambolic feeling that isn’t wholly detrimental.
None of this is to suggest Slattery of any incompetence behind the camera. He’s cut his teeth on several Mad Men episodes, and God’s Pocket represents a small-yet-significant upscale in ambition. One can’t shake the suspicion, however, that this project has allowed Slattery to find his feet working with a feature. If he continues directing, one hopes for more cohesive work in the future.
Another three-star movie in what’s becoming a bit of a three-star year, then. God’s Pocket is not an epitaph for Hoffman, even if it is constantly preoccupied with death. Neither is it the calamity it has been made out to be in some circles. It’s fine. A little messy. But fine.