In God’s Pocket, a small town in Pennsylvania where everybody knows everybody’s business, it wouldn’t be uncommon to look out your window and see a man with one leg digging through the trash. Unfortunately, the same is also true of “God’s Pocket,” a morbid, 1970’s-set bummer of a film that strands its talented cast with less-than-deserving material. The film opens with a funeral and a fight, then quickly flashes back to three days prior where we’re formally introduced to Mickey, (a beleaguered Philip Seymour Hoffman), a low-level crook and one of the few residents of the insular town not to be born there. Along with his co-horts (played by John Turturro and “The Wire” star Domenick Lombardozzi), Mickey’s daily routine might involve stealing meat trucks, gambling or getting wasted at the local watering hole.
Mickey seems to have very little affection for his wife Jeannie (“Mad Men” star Christina Hendricks, sorely underutilized here) and even less for his stepson Leon (“Antiviral” lead Caleb Landry Jones), a sweaty, sinewy, pill-popping, little shit who is killed in a construction “accident” after playfully turning a knife on a co-worker. Jeannie has a hard time believing that there isn’t some foul play involved (who wouldn’t have wanted this kid dead?) and urges Mickey to look into it. But doing so sends the already-broke Mickey into further debt which means that he has to cart his stepson’s body around himself for a few days in the back of his meat truck. Things do not really improve from there.
Shot with no particular distinction by former Spike Jonze/Sofia Coppola stalwart Lance Acord (“Lost In Translation,” “Being John Malkovich”), the film is about ugly people doing ugly things and is an especially disappointing debut from “Mad Men” star John Slattery. The actor has proven himself to be a great director on the show, having helmed a handful of notable episodes including Season 5’s unforgettable “Signal 30.” But his hand is not as steady here and it isn’t clear until about the halfway mark that this was supposed to be a dark comedy in the vein of “Fargo.” But where Slattery is still finding his way behind the camera, the Coen Bros. are masters of tone and knew that without the unyielding optimism of Frances McDormand’s character, “Fargo” might’ve been unbearable. Unfortunately, there is no such respite here.
Hendricks’ character might get off easiest but she’s too marginalized to align your sympathies with. It seems a shame to waste an actress as fiery as Hendricks with such a repressed character but Jeannie does get a few opportunities to explode and for those brief moments, the character comes to life. The great Richard Jenkins similarly does his best as a high-functioning alcoholic and newspaper columnist who has devoted the last 20 years to chronicling the lives of the people of God’s Pocket. He’s sent to investigate the death of Jeannie’s son and ends up becoming entangled in the lives of the grieving survivors. The ultimate message seems to be about the dangers of outsiders passing judgement (delivered to one character via a savage beating) but ironically, the film commits the same sin.
Featuring grotesque depictions of a bar full of sad sacks that would make Alexander Payne wince, the film is almost unrepentantly nasty towards its characters. A stuttering boy is told to “fucking write it down,” another character spits beer on a corpse and jokes “Irish funeral,” and there are no shortage of people drinking themselves into a stupor. The screenplay, based on the novel by Pete Dexter and adapted by Dexter and Slattery, conjures up an uncomfortably cynical view of these townsfolk that basically amounts to misery porn. Had the film leaned earlier into comedy or taken a more humanistic view of its characters, it may not have left quite such a bad aftertaste. [C-]