God’s Pocket: Muddled Solidarity That Can’t Make Up Its Mind

By Jim Rohner · May 12, 2014

God's Pocket is a blue collar neighborhood with which its associated city would probably like to disassociate.  It wouldn't be accurate to say that God's Pocket has an infamous reputation because like many insular neighborhood counterparts, the reputation of God's Pocket can really only be relayed by its residents, tumbleweeds in a decrepit town who have never managed to be carried by the wind any further than one of two local bars.  

There are no secrets amongst the residents either.  Everyone knows every sordid detail about each other, the lies they've told, the things they've stolen, and the infidelities, but that hasn't done anything to weaken the perverse familial bonds that have formed over countless decades and descendants.  The only condemnable crime on the streets is to not be a resident of God's Pocket, at least according to the monologue of Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins), the flamed out alcoholic columnist that passes for a local celebrity in the working class neighborhood.

It's in God's Pocket that Leon Hubbard's (Caleb Landry Jones) worksite murder can be reported as an accident and the story be rallied around by the co-workers who knew him for the arrogant asshole he was.  Condolences are offered to his mother, Jeanie Scarpato (Christina Hendricks), and his stepfather, Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman), while a collection is taken up for the funeral.  "He was always such a good boy" the local drunks tell Mickey genuinely, but incorrectly.  Leon was never a good boy.  He probably would've grown up to amount to nothing and never escaped God's Pocket.  Just like the rest of them.

Mickey isn't like the rest of them, however.  He comes from outside the Pocket and doesn't want to end up like the rest of them.  But married to a now emotionally destroyed wife and owing his own debts on top of now having to overpay Smilin' Jack Moran (Eddie Marsan) for an untimely funeral, it becomes not a question of when he'll get out, but if.

If God's Pocket is worth remembering it's thanks to the style of actor-turned-director John Slattery.  Every frame of the film is saturated with an aesthetic and emotional stagnancy, a fitting kind of malaise that suffocates those neighborhoods living in the geographic shadows of much larger cities while emulating in their own perverse ways the interconnectedness of small town Americana.  It's Shellburn's newspaper column that tells us about the inescapable fate of the Pocket's citizens, but it's the collaboration between Slattery, cinematographer Lance Accord and production designer Roshelle Berliner that shows us how it permeates every step of the characters' livelihoods.  

Accord, whose most notable past work has relied on shooting more for whimsy (Where the Wild Things Are, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), lights more for mundanity here.  Even at the peak of the day, the streets of God's Pocket seem overcast and the residents seem to rely more on the grays that trickle in through their fading curtains than they do electricity in order to see how they'll be meandering through their days.  Nothing is ever too bright, but nothing ever dips too deep into darkness, accentuating the pervasiveness of an unavoidable awkward middle ground.  From the cars to the furniture to the wardrobes, every material possession carries the implication of wear and strain and struggle.  Even the beer glasses at The Hollywood are always cloaked in condensation as though there were a battle between the cold refreshment within and a suffocating humidity without.

The souls that barely exist in the pocket are skillfully acted by a brilliant ensemble cast, the highlight of which is, of course, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who excels in the trademark way he was always able to – by slipping seamlessly into the role of an everyman.  Jenkins stands out as another highlight, a self-loathing alcoholic who perhaps once took pride in his work, but now fakes his way through it for the purposes of lecherousness, pointing out the flaws of the Pocket while hypocritically standing as one of its most prominent consequences.

But below the surface of God's Pocket is a film that otherwise doesn't stand out.  Adapted from a novel by Peter Dexter, the script for God's Pocket struggles to attach any significance to the subplots outside of those immediately affecting Mickey.  What would appear to be a quite significant gambling loss plays out rather matter-of-factly and an awkward romance that springs up between Shellburn and Jeanie comes off as both rushed and not quite convincingly consensual.  They strike the viewers as two threads that were likely given more significance on the page and included in the screenplay with less deftness.  

Perhaps the film's biggest crime though, is that the filmmakers can't seem to make up their minds as to whether they admire or condemn God's Pocket and its residents.  The film takes the opportunity to highlight scenes in which the twisted sense of solidarity is on full display, but there's an ambivalence about whether that's a good or bad thing.  Granted, it is not necessarily the job of the filmmakers to pass down judgment, but so much effort is made to accentuate that the Pocket is such a niche society, so much importance placed on the insider vs. outsider paradigm without any sufficient extrapolation of why.  Without this, the answer to the question of whether or not Mickey gets out becomes as muddled as the light trickling through the faded Scarpato curtains.