The feature debut from Mad Men actor John Slattery (who plays the wonderfully urbane Roger Sterling in the hit AMC show), God’s Pocket (2013) may not share the same air of sophistication as the stylish ad industry ratings winner, but this sleazy tale of small town Joes and two-bit hustlers is easily pulled through by its impressive ensemble cast. For his first film, Slattery calls on the talents of Mad Men co-star Christina Hendricks, the sorely missed Philip Seymour Hoffman (in his penultimate role), the always excellent Richard Jenkins and John Turturro, alongside a host of other familiar faces. Though missteps are made, Slattery strikes an effective balance between black comedy and noirish morbidity.
Adapted from the 1983 novel by award-winning American pulp writer Pete Dexter (Paris Trout, The Paperboy), Slattery’s inaugural offering is entirely enclosed within the titular Philadelphia neighbourhood of ‘God’s Pocket’, circa 1978. When frozen meat peddler Mickey’s (Hoffman) repulsive racist stepson Leon (Caleb Landry Jones) is killed during a dispute at the construction at which he works, nobody sheds a tear except his mother, Jeanie (Hendricks). At the same time across town, seasoned reporter Richard Shellburn (Jenkins) is wallowing in the depths of alcoholism and depression. However, when Shellburn gets a sniff of Leon’s accident the newshound vows to uncover the truth – if only to woo the grieving Jeanie – while Mickey busies himself with burying both the wretch and his fate.
Pivotal to the success of God’s Pocket is Jenkins’ bespectacled Shellburn, ostensibly our guide through the moral detritus of this down-on-its-luck neighbourhood, but also simultaneously an aloof hypocrite who chastises those around him whilst himself sliding ever closer to the gutter. With his editor having cottoned on to the fact that he’s simply recycled the same column in the local rag every day for years/decades, Shellburn’s journalistic juices only begin to flow again after a rendezvous with the red-headed Jeanie, with whom he quickly becomes besotted. Hoffman’s Mickey, on the other hand, can’t do right for doing wrong. Strapped for cash and lambasted by Jeanie’s ghoulish sisters, his only means of raising the doe to cover Leon’s funeral costs come from entering into dealings with a group of local hoodlums, contacts made through his flower-flogging friend Arthur (Turturro). As lives overlap and events become evermore farcical (several scenes involving the impromptu transportation of Leon’s stiff corpse prove memorable), desperation finally takes precedence.
Having cut his teeth directing several episodes of Mad Men, Slattery does at times struggle to bring anything new to the impoverished blue-collar, working-class trope. Relying heavily on several top-drawer character actors to lift his occasionally flat, even nihilistic story of love and death amidst urban decay, it’s Hoffman and Jenkins that deserve the largest proportion of praise, while other characters quickly fall to the wayside of our interest. There’s also been some criticism pointed towards Slattery – and, by extension, Dexter – for his almost entirely unflattering portrayal of small town America, which could be argued to be a little too close to Shellburn’s own patronising viewpoint for comfort (Dexter himself was beaten up a group of men after writing about a murder in Philadelphia’s ‘Devil’s Pocket’). What God’s Pocket does offer, however, is a snapshot of a western societal divide based not upon right and wrong, but have and have not.
This review was originally published in August 2014 for the threatrical release of God’s Pocket.
Daniel Green | @DanGreen1986