Known primarily for his role as Roger Sterling in TV’s Mad Men John Slattery tries his hand behind the camera with mixed results but huge potential. Because God’s Pocket, based on the novel by Peter Dexter, is never a straightforward story, often tonally bipolar but manages to remain a mildly engaging character drama.
In the suburb of God’s Pocket the blur collar workers go about their hard slog before unwinding in local bars to drown their sorrows. Mickey (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a small-time crook who with his friend Arthur (John Turturro) runs simple schemes to make ends meat. But when Mickey’s step-son (Caleb Landry Jones) is killed at work it sets off a series of events that will test him to the limit. His wife Jeanie (Christina Hendricks) refuses to believe the death was an accident, a local journalist (Richard Jenkins) is sniffing around the story, and his wife, and Mickey is having financial problems when paying for the funeral to undertaker Smilin’ Jack Moran (Eddie Marsan).
Flitting a little too frequently from deep character drama, to dark comedy and then to blistering bouts of violence God’s Pocket never quite sits right as a viewing experience. The script never nails down a tone that allows a coherent flow to the piece meaning the attention is often drawn to one particular aspect while failing to peak the interest in another.
It wants to be the filmic equivalent to a Bruce Springsteen song, that Born In The USA mentality of the American Dream first warped, then broken then, in a sun-dappled conclusion, almost fixed again. The problem is there is never a clear through-line to the film. Instead it jumps around following numerous narratives which rarely tie-in to the main plot. This is partly due to Dexter’s source novel that has numerous narrators but Slattery and co-writer Alex Metcalf never find a key hook to grab the audience whereas the novel has multiple magnetic characters.
The direction on the other hand is impressive. The visual of this run-down suburb, all drab colours and blistering summer heat plays cleverly with the story on offer. There is an economy to Slattery’s execution that is reminiscent of the great Sidney Lumet, that ability to convey much with little need for flashy camera moves.
Slattery has also assembled one hell of a cast for a debut feature and as such the characters on offer pull you in to this twisted little world. Jenkins is disturbingly creepy as the minor-celebrity journalist whose ego is bigger than his talent and whose lecherous ways of looking at Mickey’s wife are often skin crawling. Hendricks, Slattery’s on-screen squeeze from Mad Men, is wonderfully understated and powerfully quiet as the grieving mother while Eddie Marsan is typically comical and captivating as the sleazy undertaker. Seymour Hoffman, in one of his final roles before his untimely death, carries the film on his hunched-over shoulders. His Mickey is a want-to-be tough guy who doesn’t quite have the backbone to really intimidate. Instead he’s a dotting husband, knowing full well he’s punching above his over-weight class. Hoffman manages to find ways of instilling a sad-sack humour with frustrated anxiety at being an ‘outsider’ to the community. It’s the kind of performance that makes you realise just how much of a miss this great actor is going to be to the industry.
Like patting your head and rubbing your tummy God’s Pocket is trying to do too many things at once but that doesn’t stop it from having moments of entertainment.