Movie Review: God's Pocket (2014)
“God’s Pocket,” written and directed by John Slattery of “Mad Men,” is more fun than I thought it would be.
It’s set in the 1970s in a fictionalized version of a crime-ridden, blue collar section of South Philadelphia, Schuylkill (a.k.a. “Devil’s Pocket”), and focuses on the down-and-out, the scroungers, the made and the marginalized. The people from God’s Pocket, we’re told, rarely leave God’s Pocket, and don’t trust anyone not from God’s Pocket. And if they’re smart, and they are not many of those, they wouldn’t trust anyone from God’s Pocket, either.
The local newspaper has an alcoholic columnist, Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins), who likes to wax rhapsodic about the area. He’s its poet laureate, and he’s the kind of poet laureate it deserves. Early, he says, “I’ve been writing the story of this city for 20 years,” and I answered back at the screen, “So you should be better at it,” because he’s lousy. He’s semi-celebrated but 90% inebriated. That’s how you can tell it’s the 1970s: a newspaperman is a local celebrity.
Anyway he spends a lot of time sentimentalizing God’s Pocket, defining it narrowly, so allow me to try the same. There are two things you need to know about God’s Pocket and “God’s Pocket,” and they are both unexpected and the expected: You never know who’s going to win a fight and everyone is going to try to fuck Christina Hendricks.
Truth won't out
The movie opens with two funerals, spaced a few days apart, so, like in the cold opens of “Six Feet Under,” we wonder who is going to die.
It doesn’t take long to find out the first. Hendricks plays Jeanie Scarpato, first seen with her husband Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman) huffing and puffing on top of her in the early morning light. Then she rouses her twentysomething son, Leon (Caleb Landry Jones, trying to channel Heath Ledger), for work. He’s a druggie, thinks he’s a toughie, plays with a pocket razor at the factory. He also thinks he can pick on the one black guy there. Wrong. After putting the razor to his throat, ha ha, the dude clubs him with a lead pipe. Down he goes. Dead, it turns out. But the foreman, Coleman Peets (Glenn Fleshler, who played George Remus on “Boardwalk Empire” and—more memorably—Errol Childress in “True Detective”), tells the cops a crane swung and hit him. All the others agree. Nobody really liked Leon. Or maybe that’s just the way in God’s Pocket.
Jeanie, distraught, knows something else happened—she just knows—so she asks first her husband, then the cops, then Richard Shellburn, to investigate. They all kinda do. Because, well, it’s Christina Hendricks.
At this point you think: Who’s going to find the answer first? But that’s the wrong question. “First” is particularly wrong. Truth doesn’t out in God’s Pocket.
Instead, Mickey asks his connected friend, Arthur (John Turturro), to see if local crime boss Sal Cappi (Domenick Lombardozzi, Herc on “The Wire” and Ralph Capone on “Boardwalk Empire”) can’t send some guys down to ask some questions. They do. And Coleman Peets is there all by himself. Uh oh. But no. As I said, you never know who’s going to win a fight in God’s Pocket. Peets sends both men back, and one (Sal’s brother) without an eye. This sends an enraged Sal back at Arthur; but Arthur’s Aunt Sophie (Joyce Van Patten), running the register at their flower shop, takes out a gun, misfires, then kills both Sal and his brother. Then she and Arthur skip town.
Meanwhile, Shellburn’s investigation turns into more of an investigation of Jeanie. Meanwhile, the cops ... Well, they’re cops. They don’t factor.
Mickey is on his own, hapless, downward spiral. At the local bar, the Hollywood, run by McKenna (Peter Gerety, Judge Phelan on “The Wire”), a collection is taken up for Leon’s funeral, but Mickey blows it at the racetrack and then struggles to hide all this from Jeanie and the town. Unfortunately, the local funeral director, Smilin’ Jack (Eddie Moran), doesn’t accept half payments; and after losing a fight to a disappointed Mickey, locks both him and Leon’s corpse out in the rain. Mickey then: 1) loads up Leon in his meat truck; 2) tries to sell the stolen meat to make up the rest of the funeral charges; 3) winds up selling the truck instead, but 4) in the process, the truck is driven away for a testdrive, which Mickey didn’t agree to, and, chasing the truck, he spooks the driver into traffic, and Leon’s corpse winds up an accident victim: dead a second time.
There are small pleasures in “God’s Pocket,” not least all the alums from the great HBO, etc. shows of the last 10 years. It’s sad watching Philip Seymour Hoffman, of course, but his performance still gives off small pleasures. On the phone, the doubtful raise of his eyebrow he gives when he says of Leon, “They say something fell on him.” Mostly, though, I just like his head-shaking disappointment in everything and everybody. Sal unnecessarily decks a guy, a civilian, and Mickey shakes his head. Smilin’ Jack takes a swing at Mickey, Mickey shakes his head. Mickey is the guy not from God’s Pocket, and sometimes folks forget. “Oh right, you’re not from here.” He’s hardly a moral exemplar (gambling, etc.) but in a way he is. When he learns Jeanie is schtupping Richard Shellburn, he’s not enraged; he just sighs. Way of the world. Basically: What a disappointment everyone is turning out to be. In fact, when Shellburn shows up at the local bar, and the patrons object to one of his sappy columns—he describes them as dirty-faced—it’s Mickey who tries to come to his rescue. To no avail. Shellburn is taken outside and beaten to death. The second funeral is his. Someone else will have to write about it.
That’s how this all began, actually. “God’s Pocket” is based upon the novel of the same name by Pete Dexter, a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, who, in 1981, was nearly beaten to death in Schuylkill by locals who objected to one of his recent columns about a drug deal gone wrong. He suffered a concussion and gave up the newspaper business for writing novels. He won the National Book Award for “Paris Trout” in 1988. “God’s Pocket,” from 1983, is his first novel.
Why did it attract Slattery? Who knows? It’s not a great story but at least it surprises now and again. I didn’t walk away from it, as I do with most Hollywood movies, shaking my head.