by Matt Levine
God’s Pocket refers to the name of the gritty, blue-collar Philadelphia suburb in which the film is set, but the title also has a sardonic edge: it’s as though these characters are trapped in hell on earth by a cruel and callous God, like nasty little parasites cheating and killing each other in a festering Petri dish. Set in the late 1970s (as was Pete Dexter’s 1983 novel) and populated with characters who drown most of their lives away at the neighborhood pub, God’s Pocket is vicious, hopeless, and misanthropic—its attempts at black comedy, humorous as they sporadically are, do nothing to alleviate the misery. With such a talented cast and crew, the film admittedly has an unnerving power, but it’s hard to see a point to such a relentlessly wicked view of humanity.
Director: John Slattery
Producers: Lance Acord, Jackie Kelman Bisbee, Sam Bisbee, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Slattery, Emily Ziff
Writers: Alex Metcalf, John Slattery, Pete Dexter (novel)
Cinematographer: Lance Acord
Editor: Tom McArdle
Music: Nathan Larson
Cast: Christina Hendricks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eddie Marsan, Caleb Landry Jones, Eddie McGee, Molly Price, John Turturro, Richard Jenkins, Domenick Lombardozzi, Peter Gerety, Joyce Van Patten
Premiere: January 17, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: May 9, 2014
US Distributor: IFC Films
Given the overwhelmingly negative reviews God’s Pocket received after its Sundance premiere, one wonders if it would have been distributed so widely had it starred anyone besides Philip Seymour Hoffman. This was one of the beloved actor’s last roles, and his producer credit suggests there was something deeper attracting him to the project—perhaps its brazenly despondent worldview. Whatever the case, his reliably fine-tuned acting is doubtlessly the main draw, as he gives sour yet compassionate life to Mickey Scarpato, a lower-class butcher who has worked his way into God’s Pocket’s notoriously insular community. Married to the gorgeous Jeanie Scarpato (Christina Hendricks), a character defined almost entirely by her physical beauty and emotional hysteria, Mickey is asked to investigate the mysterious death of Jeanie’s son Leon (Caleb Landry Jones) after he’s killed on a construction site.
Mickey enlists the help of his small-time crook buddy Bird (John Turturro), who owes thousands of dollars to a handful of sleazy gangsters; Bird assumes this obligatory investigation, demanded by a mournful Jeanie, will be a cakewalk, but it turns out there’s more to Leon’s death than he assumes. Meanwhile, a drunken, destitute local reporter named Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins) is asked to interview Jeanie for a torrid sob story. The kind of man who orders six screwdrivers for a mid-afternoon quaff, Richard drearily stumbles to the Scarpato household until he first eyes Jeanie’s curvaceous figure, falling instantaneously in love.
There are other lowlifes and drunkards who populate God’s Pocket, playing roles of varying significance in the film’s central storyline. This probably sounds like an inexcusable portrayal of stupid, vindictive, awful lower-class characters, but in the movie’s defense it treats some of their crises with begrudging empathy. Rather than empty idiots whose tragedies are mocked or exploited, these people recognize their despondency yet seem helpless to resist the repugnant flaws that pervade human nature. Some of the characters are revealed to have surprising depth (such as the corner pub’s irascible bartender), and a few relationships—especially that between Bird and his wife Sophie (Joyce Van Patten)—are conveyed with unexpected tenderness. To be sure, the characters are all unable (or unwilling) to escape the petty lust, greed, and malice that seem to permeate the entire neighborhood, but at least they occasionally seem like thinking humans rather than the simplistic buffoons of Nebraska.
But even if the ensemble occasionally exudes an air of realism, that doesn’t excuse the pointlessly oppressive bleakness or, more pragmatically, the film’s sloppy construction. Although there is a central plot, it is often brushed aside—and eventually almost ignored—for a more scattershot portrayal of the individuals in the community. Certain filmmakers have a knack for structuring their works around a motley assortment of characters, from Robert Altman to the Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembéne. In his directorial debut, John Slattery (better known as Mad Men’s Roger Sterling) clearly has not yet honed this skill. The movie often lazily jumps from one scene to another with only a cursory exposition shot to introduce us to the new locale. Talented and ambitious filmmakers attempt visual or thematic bridges to link seemingly unrelated scenes—see practically any edit in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive for interesting examples. God’s Pocket, on the other hand, has practically no interest in crafting such fluid compositions, making the film seem like a rote compendium of unrelated moments, rather than a well-constructed and cohesive creation.
A more obvious defect is the film’s overwhelming air of hatred: racial, sexual, and economic tensions are indulged to a ludicrous extent, seemingly just for a vacuous air of “grittiness.” The animosity between the film’s black and white characters should be compelling, especially since one such instance propels the plot; but it’s clear that the movie has precisely zero interest in exploring the social conditions that give rise to such antagonism. The movie’s relentless misogyny, couched though it is in the characters’ sexist attitudes, is even more uncomfortable. One supporting character, a recent graduate of Temple University’s journalism school, exists only to demonstrate that her naked, nubile twenty-year-old body does nothing to excite the despondent Shellburn character; as she heartlessly gives him a handjob (nudity conspicuously included), we’re meant to identify with his depression instead of lamenting her eagerness to jerk off a decrepit shell of a local celebrity. (This character is played by Sophia Takal, who was so great in the otherwise mediocre All the Light in the Sky—a film about the dubious demands placed on young actresses and their physical perfection. Apparently John Slattery has not seen that movie.) God’s Pocket’s overzealous air of cruelty extends to a few gratuitously violent scenes—including a blood-spraying eye-gouging—that emphasize an obnoxious desire to seem “edgy” and “raw,” when in fact they’re just juvenile and self-congratulatory.
As Mickey goes to great lengths to satisfy Jeanie by providing her son (and his stepson) with a proper funeral, the film comes dangerously close to laughing at his futile efforts. When he’s unable to pay the belligerent funeral director, Smilin’ Jack Moran (Eddie Marsan), Leon’s corpse is unceremoniously heaved out the door into the rain. “It’s a cold world,” Jack responds—a hollow platitude for such a relentlessly bleak film. It’s all for naught anyways, since Jeanie rapidly gives in to Shellburn’s advances and cheats on her doting (if sullen) husband. Why? Because she’s unhappy in her marriage, supposedly, though the underlying assumption is that she’s a woman and she can’t be trusted—making all of Mickey’s sacrifices even more ludicrous and emasculating. The unpleasantry continues as an “outsider” character is mercilessly beaten to death at the climax; even a seemingly happy ending is unsettlingly (and, it must be said, cleverly) accompanied by the sound of gunshots ringing out in the distance. All of us are living in God’s Pocket—meek little pawns shuffled around for a heartless Creator’s bemusement.
Hypothetically, there’s nothing wrong with dismal subject matter—as long as there is some kind of emotional or thematic complexity to the bleakness. If not, we’re treated to a “Life is shit” theme and an irritating refusal to interrogate that disconsolate resignation. In the case of God’s Pocket, there are engaging elements: the faded color scheme and roaming cinematography of the talented D.P. Lance Acord (who has often worked with Sofia Coppola and Spike Jonze) evokes a distinct milieu, and an extremely capable cast tries to bring sincerity to characters who could have easily been stereotypes. The opportunity to watch Hoffman, Hendricks, Turturro, Jenkins, and Marsan giving it their all inevitably provides some emotional engagement. But that’s not enough to enliven a depressing, sloppy film about a perfidious ensemble doomed to neverending damnation. Yes, it might be a cold, cold world out there—but it’s got nothing on this wicked and smugly hopeless movie.