There's a heavy, light-sucking darkness at the heart of God's Pocket, the first movie directed by John Slattery, an excellent actor best known for the role of Roger Sterling on Mad Men. And while that darkness, which is both literal and metaphoric, is likely to put off some if not most moviegoers, there's a real integrity to the film.
God's Pocket is based on the first novel of Pete Dexter, a former newspaper columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News who's probably better known as the author of Paris Trout (which was made into a memorable HBO movie starring Dennis Hopper) and The Paperboy (which Lee Daniels turned into a lurid Florida fable a couple of years ago). It tells a fairly straightforward story about a murder in a rough South Philadelphia neighborhood -- a real neighborhood that was called "Devil's Pocket" -- and it culminates in a devastating event that echoes Dexter's personal history. It's a sad but honest story that, while unrelieved by any sort of uplift, grants its characters a degree of dignity.
While I can't be sure exactly how faithful Slattery is to the letter of the novel -- I read it when it came out in the early 1980s -- it completely captures the spirit of the piece. The people of God's Pocket are tribal gangsters and thieves, but they are also human beings, with all that that implies. They are capable of the full complement of emotional response. You pity and condescend to them at your own risk.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his last movie roles, plays Mickey Scarpato, a truck driver whose business often strays outside strictly legal parameters. He is not from the Pocket, and the people who live there find him just the slightest bit suspect because of that. He is married to Jeanie (Christina Hendricks, who works with Slattery on Mad Men), a widow with a grown son, Leon (Caleb Landry Jones), a nasty piece of racist work who brandishes a razor.
When Leon is killed by a co-worker on a construction site, all his colleagues agree he had it coming and conspire to cover it up. Everyone seems satisfied to call the kid's death an accident.
Only Jeanie suspects there's more to it. To that end, she charges the hapless Mickey to ask around and she enlists the help of Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins), a hack newspaper columnist who imagines himself a beloved celebrity.
Shellburn is an alcoholic who enjoys and exploits the immediate power he holds over Jeanie -- although he suspects that in the end she'll grow tired of him because, well, women always do. And Mickey, who didn't care much for Leon himself, finds himself struggling to try to please his wife as the universe turns against him. A string of outlandish missteps leaves him driving around the city with the kid's body in his refrigerated truck -- a truck he has decided to sell so he can pay for a proper funeral.
Blackly absurd, God's Pocket allows a little relief at the end -- probably too little for mainstream tastes. Yet it is a tightly controlled and purposeful work that says exactly what it intends to say about the nature of ordinary people and the perils of presumption. As might be expected considering Slattery's pedigree, it is uniformly well-acted with Hendricks exposing a tremulous, vulnerable layer while seeming to maintain a measure of calculation. Jenkins is heartbreaking as a man disgusted with his own turpitude, and Hoffman moves through the movie like a broken beast of burden, a hollow soul collapsing under the weight of a million indignities. John Turturro and Eddie Marsan show up in brief, colorful roles.
Most people won't see God's Pocket and most who see it probably won't like it. But if the movie is to be judged on how well it does what it means to do, Slattery has produced a miserable little miracle.
MovieStyle on 05/16/2014
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