Film Review: God's Pocket

John Slattery’s feature directing debut is an agreeably gritty and illusion-free dark comedy about low-rent hoods and working-class grief based on a clutch of resonant performances, particularly Philip Seymour Hoffman and Richard Jenkins.

Given that John Slattery’s role on “Mad Men” is the whip-smart and regret-free rake, it’s no surprise that his first film as director would feature a highly refined sense of devilish humor. As an actor’s film, it’s also no surprise that his boozy, bloody comedy God’s Pocket is an uneven piece of work that’s absolutely assured when it comes to setting and character but less so when trying to weave a tight piece of drama out of all its squalling components. There’s not a moment in the film when Slattery doesn’t convey with absolute clarity what each character is about and where they fit in their small, restricted world. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to bring this film across the finish line.

The title comes from the neighborhood where all the action is set. It’s a scabrous, Southie kind of place where the bars are packed, the walls are covered in wood paneling, the air is thick with cigarette smoke and barely controlled rage, the mood black, and the faces white. As the beautiful wounded bird at the center of all the story’s ugliness, Slattery’s “Mad Men” co-star Christina Hendricks plays Jeanie Scarpato. She’s the blinded-by-love mother to Leon (Caleb Landry Jones), a drugged-out, scrubby kid who doesn’t make it too far into the film. He’s so busy at his job one day ranting and raving and spitting racial slurs that when his sole black co-worker clocks him with a lead pipe, it’s a complete surprise.

When the cops come by, nobody knows anything. Accident, they say. Only Jeanie thinks she knows differently. Jeanie’s grief pushes her third-string gangster boyfriend Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the first of three posthumous roles to be seen this year) to get help from a friend in crime (John Turturro) to find out what really happened while also figuring out how to pay off the funeral director, Smilin’ Jack Moran (Eddie Marsan, knife-sharp in his venality but not so successfully hiding that British accent).

Meanwhile, the local star newspaper columnist, Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins), is pushed into covering the story. He’s the sort of columnist who pens self-puffing lines like “I’ve been writing the story of this city for twenty years.” While Shelburn’s presence and occasional voiceovers about the “simple men” of God’s Pocket add little to the story itself, they give the audience an opportunity to revel in another fine appearance from Jenkins, the cinema’s current greatest exemplar of comic exhaustion at the exasperation of life.

At first, it seems that Leon’s death could set off a Bonfire of the Vanities type of dramatic explosion. But the racial subtext is pushed quickly to the side in favor of tracking the ever-more ludicrous extremes to which Mickey goes to secure the necessary funds. As in any story about bottom-feeding hoods of this nature, the comedy comes from the painful entanglements that follow bad decisions and worse luck. In short, you don’t need a crystal ball to know that there is little chance Mickey’s not going to take the money which the good neighborhood folks have donated for the funeral and go right to the betting parlor. Hoffman’s take is one of his more powerfully exhausted performances; his Mickey always seems as though his soul has just run up a steep hill and is about to collapse.

Slattery, who adapted the screenplay with Alex Metcalf from Pete Dexter’s 1983 novel, gets a lot right here. He works in the scabrously 1970s Northeastern criminal milieu of Killing Them Softly and other films, but without the self-mythologizing. There’s little honor here in being poor, just anger and lack of opportunity. Slattery also manages to hit a number of comic notes that other filmmakers couldn’t have pulled off, particularly a quick and clean shootout in a flower shop that’s both somehow breathtakingly efficient and indelibly funny. Those moments aren’t enough to save this short and hard-to-pigeonhole story. But while God’s Pocket can’t quite marry its competing moods of mournfulness, violence and rueful comedy, they at least show a welcome appreciation for tragedy’s essential absurdity. 

Click here for cast & crew information.