The late Phillip Seymour Hoffman had a way of making fundamentally despicable characters seem fascinating, whether it was the jerk jock in The Talented Mr. Ripley who proved the only person sharp enough to see through Matt Damon’s ruses, or even in The Hunger Games, where Hoffman plays a sadistic gamemaster made deeper than his dialogue simply for the gravitas delivered with the words. What’s interesting about God’s Pocket (which was picked up by IFC Films and will open in theaters May 9), is that as the least despicable character in the film, Hoffman seems through osmosis to lend the same depth to every other person on screen.
God’s Pocket, the first feature film directed by Mad Men actor John Slattery and one Hoffman’s final performances before a tragic drug overdose in February, is a treat for anyone interested in the exploration of unfixable personalities in a world that coddles corruption. And while a plotline barely exists within the film, the world created through performances, particular those of Hoffman and Richard Jenkins, makes the movie one worth watching.
The film, based on a novel by Pete Dexter, starts with a voiceover by Jenkins, who attended the Sarasota Film Festival with the film in April. Jenkins’ Richard Shellburn reads a newspaper column he wrote about the community of God’s Pocket in Pennsylvania. In a few short lines, Jenkins helpfully lays out the underpinning of the entire movie with the explanation of the people there, criminals who steal from one another but still stay tight for the sake of community. “The only thing they can’t forgive is not being from God’s Pocket.”
Hoffman and Jenkins play the only characters in this wretched town who are not natives (as far as audiences know), and indeed they live by a different set of rules and morals. That isn’t to say either character is pure—Jenkins’ Richard Shellburn is an womanizer driven by arrogance and lust while Hoffman’s Mickey Scarpato is willing to bet the fund for a family funeral on a horserace. But the rest of the denizens of God’s Pocket have protectionist tendencies that lead to ugly and immoral decisions.
The natural tendency for the townspeople whenever something atrocious is done is simply to cover up the deed. The first such event happens when Leon (Caleb Landry Jones), son to Christina Hendricks’ Jeannie Scarpato and Hoffman’s Mickey, gets murdered at work. When police arrive, every eyewitness spontaneously calls the death an accident, and when one tries to speak up, he gets silenced by his peers. Throughout the film other characters also meet violent ends, and the instinct of all around remains to cover up the acts.
But the strange thing Slattery accomplishes for most of the film is to make the audience understand this corrupted outlook. While viewers are not from God’s Pocket, the motives remain relatable. In the case of Leon’s murder, the victim in just a few minutes of screen time establishes himself as a crude and hateful racist. During the screening I attended at the Sarasota Opera House, the audience loudly cheered when a black coworker tired of personal beratings took a metal pipe to Leon’s skull.
Cheers broke out for other acts of violence, too, but they quieted with each subsequent event, and by the end it becomes clear, through the eyes of Mickey Scarpato, that the culture that evades culpability is one that no right-minded individual should embrace.
None of this should leave the potential viewer thinking the film is overwrought with serious introspection. Many darkly funny moments—including a memorable scene with a corpse, a meat truck and an unfortunate collision—will leave viewers laughing out loud, even if that makes them question their own moral compass later.
In the end, God’s Pocket holds the most appeal for lovers of intriguing characters and fascinating performances. Hoffman reportedly loved watching this movie, even though he normally couldn’t stand seeing his own work on screen, and one can’t help wondering what sort of yet-unimagined characters that Hoffman might some day have brought to life if his own demons had not intervened.
For those for whom seeing a great performance by Hoffman is enough to enrich a filmwatching experience, God’s Pocket instantly become a must-see in the late actor’s filmography. I suspect those types of fans will find much to love in other characters—Hendricks’ sympathetic but adulterous Jeannie, Eddie Marsan’s hilariously exploitative funeral director Smilin’ Jack or John Turturro’s helpful but ultimately irresponsible Bird Capezio. For those who feel the plot’s the thing, there is less to see here, but for those with the imagination to wonder what else could happen within this rich world, God’s Pocket will not disappoint, and most likely will leave you pondering your own scenario’s long after the credits roll.