God’s Pocket is a tight-knit 1970s community south of Philadelphia where “everyone knows everyone’s business.” At least, that’s what Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins), an intermittent narrator and newspaper writer, opines about in his daily column about the town. His outsider prose gets put to the test of the working class people he describes, dusty drunken caricatures, or as Shelburne calls them, “simple men.”
One of these men is Mickey, played by Phillip Seymour-Hoffman, an alcoholically inclined butcher incongruously married to Jeanie (Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks). Their baleful, racist son Leon (Caleb Landry Jones) carries around a straight knife for fun and twirls it around carelessly at the construction yard where he works. An old black worker gets fed up one day and kills him with a blow to the head. The other workers, at once shocked and relieved with Leon’s motionless body, cover up the incident by claiming his death to be an equipment accident.
That’s where the majority of the action lies and what follows is prolonged parental grieving and investigation. Jeanie, sobbing amongst her sisters, intuitively believes there’s more to this “accident.” Mickey meanwhile continues his daily activities without pause. He works with his mobster friend (John Turturro) to steal refrigerated trucks for their meat and then gambles his debts at an off-site horseracing dive. You can’t tell if he’s more upset about his son’s death or his losing pony bets. Regardless, his mourning starts and ends with a drink.
This is a black comedy that never fully commits to either side. John Slattery, who plays the acid-tripping Roger Sterling in Mad Men, makes his directorial debut here but he can’t settle on a tone. At times the story unfolds like a glum melodrama, at others it’s a perversely gory comic strip of urban decay. Slattery is trying to invoke a domesticated Martin McDonagh film but the consistency is stirred unevenly. You can’t tell if you’re supposed to lament or despise the aging community of deadbeats and drunks. “I’m sorry for your loss,” becomes their collective monotonous drone whenever Mickey opens the bar door.
God’s Pocket seems like it could be an effective allegory about middle age, depression, and small-town industrial-era blues. Instead these somber notes get punctuated with off-kilter physical comedy. Mickey eventually starts a brawl with the local funeral home director (Edie Marsan) and Turturro’s aunt (Joyce Van Patten) handles a shotgun all too well in the flower shop she fronts. Later, after the alcoholic Shelburn has come to investigate Leon’s story and subsequently falls in love with Jeanie, the word spreads about their possible affair. Shelburne enters the main bar and is greeted with cold eyes and angry fists.
It is Hoffman though who grounds this film and keeps it from sputtering into silliness. His Mickey is a lumbering, often expressionless loaf that refuels on beer. Alcohol and drugs are two separate vices, but addiction to them has similar crippling side effects. Here you see a man embodying his character’s condition, a painful, and all too recent reminder of his early exit from life. It makes this film unintentionally darker. The cinematography is dark and dusty, too. Sometimes the added layer of reality provides an unperceived depth of meaning. Here, it makes you turn away.