Directed by John Slattery
Written by Peter Dexter (novel), Alex Metcalf (screenplay), John Slattery (screenplay)

Cast: Christina Hendricks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Glenn Fleshler, John Tutturro, Caleb Landry Jones, Richard Jenkins, Eddie Marsan

This weekend at the Phoenix Film Festival I had the privilege of screening one of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s final films, God’s Pocket.  Hoffman’s appearance as the lead is exciting, but it isn’t the only thing turning a few heads. This movie also marks Mad Men actor John Slattery‘s directoral debut. Is God’s Pocket a movie worthy of Hoffman’s legacy or should Slattery stick to selling ads in the 1960s?

God’s Pocket is set in a small Pennsylvania suburb of the same name where everybody seems to know everybody and everyone’s business belongs to everyone’s gossip. Mickey(Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a crook who has stumbled into the God’s Pocket on business and has fallen for a local lady named Jeannie(Christina Hendricks). When Jeannie’s painfully arrogant and unlikable son Leon(Caleb Landry Jones) is killed on the job at a construction worksite, Mickey is forced to raise money  to pay for Leon’s final farewell. Mickey gets together with his “business partners”(played by John Turturro and The Wire’s Domenick Lombardozzi) to run a meat smuggling operation in an attempt to raise extra money. When the press hears about Leon’s tragedy they send washed up all star reporter Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins) to investigate God’s Pocket which leads to the unraveling of the local order.

God’s Pocket is an interesting animal as a darkly funny period piece that also doubles as a character drama. It’s a film that has two sides and unfortunately one of them is far stronger than the other. The plot of the movie unfolds like the most melodramatic of soap operas. It nails all of the intriguing twists and turns, but misses when it comes  to believably impacting our characters. For Example: Leon dies, but I never really felt a strong connection to his mother or him which diffuses any drama related to their story(which is essentially the driving plot of the film).

Mickey’s attempt to raise money for the funeral is easily the most interesting part of the movie as he tangles with some dangerous men and takes surprising risks for a woman that the audience will likely despise. Christina Hendricks is an exceptional actress and she does notable work with what little she has to do, but unfortunately her character is written in a way that is difficult to like. Mickey is equally despicable and unchanged by the end of the movie, but in many ways he redeems himself by making the effort to change the way things work.

Luckily the hit or miss character drama is only half of the story. This movie is also a dark comedy that is capturing the culture of a small town suburb. The drama surrounding the characters is often uninteresting, but luckily most of it comes with a punchline that will have you laughing uncomfortably in your chair. Leon’s death is nothing to laugh about, but the circumstances of his death comes with a sense of irony and ” I told you so” that you can’t help but chuckle at. Mickey is out trying to raise money by getting in with the mob which is interesting, but not terribly funny; at least not until you see Leon’s body stuck in meat truck with all of the stolen goods. Slattery’s style hit all the right notes needed to make these otherwise humorless scenes something memorable.

The entire cast is made up of known character actors and all of them knock it out of the park with what little they have to do. Hoffman delivers a spot on performance by making this otherwise sleazy crook something audiences can really get behind. It may not be Hoffman’s most challenging role and it’s certainly nothing particularly groundbreaking, but it serves as a reminder that Hoffman’s speciality was being the everyman who could make nearly any role relatable no matter how unlikable the character. Jon Turturro also delivers some pretty funny moments as Mickey’s shady business partner and Richard Jenkins continues to excel at playing the aging scumbag journalist(someone’s got to do it Richard! None better than you).

Slattery makes an admirable first film that may not be a masterpiece, but demonstrates that he’s got more under his hat than just an impressive acting resume. His grimy portrayal of God’s Pocket effectively paints this as a place outsiders wouldn’t want to visit. The movie features a cold and unfriendly art direction that is made even more striking  thanks to the impressive cinematography. Slattery’s take on the musings and reflections of such a miserable place is easily the most interesting part of the film.  Sure the movie can feel clunky and the drama isn’t always exciting, but Slattery brings enough to the table to make  something good out of nothing.

Overall God’s Pocket is a promising start for John Slattery’s directing career and a film that Phillip Seymour Hoffman fans won’t want to miss. The production value is top knotch and all of the actors involved do some fantastic work. It may not be a masterpiece that makes waves, but it delivers a few laughs and some interesting observations about life in the unfriendly suburbs.