[This is a re-post of my review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. God’s Pocket opens today in limited release.]
Following around sad characters does not make a story poignant. It does not make it sorrowful or deep or compassionate. In his feature directing debut, John Slattery has filled a tank with dirty water so his talented actors can swim around giving performances that don’t serve anything but the performance itself, and the ugly setting and plot is just the fodder for long pauses, pained grimaces, and distant glances. Slattery swings around wildly from grimy pathos to violent dark comedy, and neither is rewarding. Rather than showcasing its talented cast, Slattery wastes them in a wasteland.
In the crappy Philadelphia town of God’s Pocket, Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is struggling to get money together to pay for the funeral of his wife Jeanie’s (Christina Hendricks) scumbag son, Noel (Caleb Landry Jones). Noel died threatening a co-worker, and the co-worker killed Noel in front of everyone, but because no one liked the sweaty, racist piece of shit, they all agree to lie and say he died in a work-related accident. Jeanie isn’t convinced, and turns to alcoholic newspaper writer/local celebrity Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins), who is more concerned with seducing the grieving mother than finding out the truth.
I don’t mind that Slattery fills his film with pathetic, despicable characters. I mind that he fills it with dull, pathetic, despicable characters. Shelburn’s opening narration almost proudly states the populace’s static, empty lives where there aren’t any losers because that would imply having something to lose. The closest a person in God’s Pocket can come to a victory is winning enough money to stave off a loan shark, not repay him in full.
Slattery doesn’t mind creating a filthy, squalid playground for his actors and they oblige him with strong performances and poor characters. Hoffman and Jenkins could do roles like Mickey and Shelburn in their sleep. They know how to hold the screen without chewing the scenery. They know how to do something with nothing, and God’s Pocket is a whole lot of nothing. I admire the cast, but I admire them far more when they’re tasked with bringing an actual character to life rather than being left to their own devices.
If God’s Pocket does share anything with the inhabitants of the eponymous neighborhood, it’s a desire to aimlessly walk around, content in its own ignorance masquerading as wisdom. It’s not a portrait of working class life or some grand tragedy. Portraits require detail and tragedies require a cohesive string of events. Slattery fills his picture with doom, despair, and desperation, but it never adds up to any meaningful drama.