God's Pocket

***

Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Eddie Marsan in God's Pocket
"It struck me how well Slattery handles the shifts in tone from hard boiled to hilarious throughout."

"The only thing they can’t forgive is not being from God’s Pocket” reads the tag line for Mad Men star John Slattery’s directorial debut. The titular God’s Pocket is a gritty, blue-collar Philly neighbourhood where both violent and blackly funny hijinks ensue. With this backdrop of an insular, thickly accented and largely low-income bracket community of hustlers and housewives bumbling their way through attempts at low level crime, there are echoes of the films of Sidney Lumet and TV series such as The Sopranos.

Slattery’s film (which he co-wrote with Alex Metcalf) is adapted from the 1983 Pete Dexter book of the same name. Dexter was a columnist for the Philedelphia Daily News, who made a star columnist the butt of his novel. This columnist takes pride in his ability to bring to life via prose the soulful blue-collar types who he is, ignorantly, probably patronising more than praising. Slattery’s use of this egotistical columnist character’s writing as a framing device in his adaptation helps him sidestep the charge of using this community as poverty porn (though Slattery himself is from a blue-collar Irish Catholic Massachusetts background).

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The tale is set in an ambiguous point in the Eighties, with Slattery and his filmmaking team crafting a pleasingly thick atmosphere for the period through the use of a subdued mucky colour palette and placing a lot of the action in murky, cramped wood interiors. Mickey Scarpato (a scruffy and heavy-set Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his final roles) is a local meat supplier and low-level crook tasked by his devastated wife Jeanie (Christina Hendricks) to investigate how his sociopathic stepson Leon got killed in a construction “accident”.

Jeanie and Mickey are clearly a painful mismatch: she is smart and beautiful and from the neighbourhood, whereas Mickey looks frayed at the edges and is an outsider who merely married into a better station, as several characters remind him during the film. With Hoffman giving Mickey a fixed hangdog expression, he approaches this task with more an attitude of weary resignation than a desire to please. Mickey seems to have figured God’s Pocket is never going to accept him. It is hard to watch the ragged-looking Hoffman, who plays it low key, and not wonder how ill he was, given his tragic death occurred less than a year after filming wrapped.

Even more of an outsider, though he doesn’t consider himself as such, is local columnist Richard Shellburn. He might be from the neighbourhood, but his middle-class trappings and festering arrogance as the local paper’s star columnist, have made him view the community as a twee collection of soulful-yet-scruffy types as opposed to real people. They are fuel for his stories as opposed to people who he actually might invite into his house. He is also a drunk, and thus not perhaps the best journalist to be commissioned to write a story on the death of Jeanie’s son: a one-last-chance assignment by his editor.

As played by Richard Jenkins, Shellburn is clearly long past his prime and has degenerated into a burned-out fantasist who blindly fixates on Jeanie to a hilarious degree, automatically assuming she will elope with him even as Mickey struggles behind the scenes to deal with figuring out what happened to Leon - a kid who he clearly didn't give much of a shit about when he was alive (actually, no one seemed to).

Other stories orbit Mickey and Richard, such as the struggles of the yellow polo shirt-attired Bird (a suitably desperate and fast-talking John Turturro) to not get killed for being in too large with the local mafia. There are also a series of ham-fisted attempts by mob enforcer Sal Cappi to intimidate the construction workers to reveal what happened, which results in one incredibly violent yet also very funny fight scene where the seemingly doomed yet incredibly self-possessed foreman turns the tables on the two goons and leaves one with an empty eye socket. Events proceed on a ‘things fall apart’ trajectory with increasingly farcical and violent results until Mickey is facing a stark choice as to whether or not to keep trying to make it in God’s Pocket.

It struck me how well Slattery handles the shifts in tone from hard boiled to hilarious throughout. Like The Sopranos, this is a world where farce is never far from the surface in the ineptly executed criminal goings on; such as the exasperated Mickey’s hopeless attempts to flog a load of stolen meat in his truck whilst keeping the corpse of Leon in the same refrigerated compartment, something which understandably unnerves the local chefs and inevitably results in a scenario where the corpse gets thrown out onto the street during a crash (and Leon gets duly recorded as dead for a second time in the press).

The production design and cinematography by DoP Lance Acord also create an intriguingly smoky and grubby mood across some very atmospheric low-lit locations, such as the characterful local watering hole populated with blearily eyed patrons, where Mickey picks up many of his leads concerning what is going on behind his and other local’s backs. The cast Slattery has assembled is undeniably top class, though his Mad Men co-star Hendricks could have been given more to do. At just 90 minutes, this is a lean and mean film that doesn’t outstay its welcome, which is good as I felt the Shellburn story felt a little bit disconnected and increasingly one-note compared to the more interesting Mickey thread, despite Shellburn being set up as a kind of framing character with his column narration voiceovers being used to set the scene. If this film had run any longer it would have started to feel stretched and drifting.

When interviewed about his film at the BFI, Slattery confessed he had no other plans to immediately direct another film. Judging from this impressive first crack of the whip, we will be the poorer if he doesn’t find a project.

Reviewed on: 22 Aug 2014
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God's Pocket packshot
A man tries to find out how his stepson died against the backdrop of blue-collar Philadelphia.

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Sundance 2014

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