There’s always a morbid fascination that comes with watching an actor’s “final performance,” and with the recent passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman, there are only a handful of upcoming films bearing the actor’s name. One of them is “God’s Pocket,” a crime-drama-comedy that finds the late thespian starring with John Turturro and a host of other great actors in the directorial debut of John Slattery, known mostly for playing Roger on the AMC show “Mad Men.”
The film charts the three days leading up to a funeral after the murder of a local day laborer and drug addict named Leon Hubbard (Caleb Landry Jones). When Hubbard takes his usual rowdy antics one step too far by threatening one of his co-workers with a knife, he is swiftly bashed in the back of the head with a lead pipe, killing him instantly. When the police come asking questions, the entire workforce agrees that Leon was hit in the head by a stray piece of machinery. When his step-father Mickey (Hoffman), a small-time criminal, hears of his step-son’s death, he begins to make funeral arrangements, which cost a little more than he expected. Meanwhile, a local columnist named Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins), who can’t even function without a bottle of liquor in his system, is assigned to investigate Leon’s death, especially the reports by his mother (Christina Hendricks), who claims that what happened to him was no accident.
From the get go, “God’s Pocket” is determined to let you know that it is a bleak film. With a story that charts the three days leading up to the funeral of a boy in his early 20s, a cast of characters who look like they’re praying for a bomb to drop on them, and some bleak but beautiful cinematography by Lance Acord, “God’s Pocket” ends up being a wonderfully acted, handsomely shot piece of shit. Based on a 1983 novel by Peter Dexter, “God’s Pocket” reeks of a story that worked much better on the page. It’s casual, laborious, and sardonic tone was probably perfect as a piece of literature, but as cinema it’s just a complete disaster. I have no doubt that Slattery understands and respects the novel, but instead of taking the source material and creating something great and original out of it, there seems to be this strict adherence to the story and tone that renders the entire product so unimaginably lifeless. The extreme quirkiness of the situations and characters would have been much better off in the hands of the Coen Brothers, but as a first-time director, Slattery just can’t pull it off.
One of the defining issues of “God’s Pocket” is that none of the characters, like the film, seem interested in doing anything. Mickey is the type of guy who’s absolutely given up on life and is just waiting around to die, living and working and sleeping his days away like a mindless drone. Shellburn is no longer even a little bit amused by his job as a columnist, and uses his fame as a writer to sleep with young journalism majors and knock back a couple free drinks wherever he can. John Turturro shows up in the film a couple times as Mickey’s partner, but the film really gives him no legitimate reason for existing, injecting him into scenes that could have probably survived without him, which is a shame considering how talented Turturro is when he’s given a great role. The film makes the point of saying that the people of God’s Pocket, which is actually a small town in rural Pennsylvania, are the type of people who know everything about everyone. If they’re born there, they stay there until the day they die. This would all be fine if the film had any interest in actually examining these personalities and illustrating what makes them unique. Instead, Slattery seems to be completely unconcerned with understanding his characters past what the scene needs them to do. There’s no nuance in the direction, and the film ends up coming off as phony and irrelevant.
In one of his final screen performances, Philip Seymour Hoffman is mesmerizing as Mickey, and most definitely the film’s only saving grace. We see the regret and anguish in his eyes every time he makes a bad decision, which there are plenty of. The great thing about Hoffman is that, even though he’s a fantastic actor, he never seems like he’s trying to outshine his co-stars. There’s a difference between being a great performer and a great actor. Hoffman is both. He seems to really know how to work with the rest of the cast and bring out the best in them as well as himself. The interesting dichotomy of the performance and the character in this film is that Hoffman absolutely nails it from a performance level, but the character himself is not even from “God’s Pocket,” which makes for some of the only interesting drama in the film. For that reason, it’s almost as if Hoffman is giving a performance within a performance. He’s trying to create this realistic character, which he does, but then has the added task of having the character always feel slightly out of place without letting it become obvious and distracting. Together, these two sides of the character make up the only interesting part of “God’s Pocket,” which is otherwise just a collection of nothing trying to masquerade as intriguing art.
“God’s Pocket” is this year’s “Out of the Furnace.” It boasts a cast of fantastic actors in a movie that has no idea what to do with them. The film only runs 88 minutes, but it feels like an eternity. It’s an endurance test for the viewer, made all the more painful by the simple fact that it could have been so much better. Watching any individual scene from “God’s Pocket” may trick you into believing that you’re watching a great film, but as a whole it becomes apparent that “God’s Pocket” is just a boring, shallow mess with no personality or purpose for existing. It has nothing to do and, even worse, nothing to say.Continue Reading Issue #4
May 9, 2014
1 hr. 28 min.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro, Richard Jenkins, Christina Hendricks, Caleb Landry Jones, and Eddie Marsan
Very thorough critical opinion. Thank you.