Review of God’s Pocket, Directed by John Slattery
God’s Pocket is the directorial debut of John Slattery, one of Mad Men’s stars, and is an odd film that never finds its voice, featuring too many storylines that never end up telling a larger narrative. Perhaps the only theme connecting them all is the nature of small towns–both their insularity and their knack for gossip. Perhaps the greatest draw to watching the movie is that we only have a few more films of Philip Seymour Hoffman yet to be released, with this unmemorable picture being one of them.
The film starts with a funeral and then starts several days prior. If you think this is going to be about the young boy in the coffin, you’re wrong, but not in a good way where there are twists and turns that get you back to an intriguing death hinted at from the start. Rather, it is just one of the many disjointed tales that make up God’s Pocket.
God’s Pocket is the name of a blue-collar neighborhood where things are rather bland. Life is kept interpreting by small things–stealing meat, betting on horses, and making money selling the most expensive coffins. Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins) and Mickey Scarpato (Hoffman) are two protagonists who seem to know God’s Pocket while also being outsiders. Shelburn is a columnist loved by the neighborhood because he appears to understand God’s Pocket, though his own miserable, monotonous life seems to betray why this is so. Mickey is deeply connected to God’s Pocket: he married Jeanie (Christina Hendricks), raises her son Leon (Caleb Landry Jones), and is close friends with Bird (John Turturro).
The story gets underway when Leon, a wannabe tough guy, picks a fight with the wrong man at work and gets a deadly whack to the head. Coworkers cover up the murder as manslaughter–the result of a falling object at the construction site–but Jeanie has a gut feeling that something is wrong. Mickey makes money stealing refrigerated meat trucks with Bird and selling the meat for profit, but not enough to pay for the funeral. At the Hollywood bar, frequented by Mickey and the townsfolk, they put out a collection jar to help defray costs.
In the meantime, Shelburn writes a piece about Leon’s and gets it all wrong. Shelburn is a drunkard who thinks he’s a celebrity, which in a way he is in a small-time kind of way. In an attempt to rectify his mistake, he travels to God’s Pocket to interview Jeanie and ends up falling in love. They have a fling. The town talks.
God’s Pocket never finds an anchor for the story beyond Leon’s death, but you never feel connected to any of the characters and so the ripple effects of his passing has little emotional impact. The only stirring moment is perhaps when he is told of Jean and Shelburn’s affair–knowledge that is only a day old yet already is the talk of the town. His ignorance is perhaps again a mark of his pedigree, not being a native of God’s Pocket. When a frequenter of the Hollywood bar tells Mickey what’s going on, against the protestation of the bartender, the bartender erupts, “Fucking people, talk about everything.”
The small town feel and its attempt to find a place in the world ends up being a morose tale. The Hollywood bar is a tip of the hat to the aspirations of run-of-the-mill folk trying to make it big, with things such as betting on horse races. In one of several voiceovers reading Shelburn’s column, there is a sobering meditation:
Until recently you only had to die once in this city, even if you came from God’s pocket. There was a time when a 23 year old working man could die once, had the event noticed in his local newspaper, and then move on to his reward, without the complications of an additional death. Leon Hubbard’s death was reported incorrectly by this newspaper last week. But then Leon Hubbard wasn’t important.
To sum it all up, Shelburn writes,
They work, marry, have children who inhabit the pocket, often in the homes of their mothers and fathers. They drink at the Hollywood or the uptown bar, little places deep in the city. They argue about things they don’t understand–politics, race, religion–and in the end, they die like everyone else, leaving their families and their houses and their legends. And there’s a dignity in that.
Just when you think Shelburn’s perspective may provide the key to the film, he is rejected by God’s Pocket, hated as a reporter who does not understand them. When Mickey courageously tries to shield Shelburn from a violent group of men kicking and punching, the people accuse Mickey of the same thing–being an outsider. We are therefore left with nothing but a sad little picture of an insular community trying to find excitement but ultimately wanting to be left alone to small town gossip.