God’s Pocket is what Goodfellas might have been like had it been directed by Alexander Payne. It follows the lives of a group of ageing petty criminals as they attempt to blot out the overwhelming futility of life in a down-and-out American town through the liberal use of alcohol and violence. At the funeral of a wayward teenager a priest eulogises: “Everyone here has stolen something, or set fire to someone else’s house when they were a kid… The only thing they can’t forgive is not being from [the town of] God’s Pocket.”
John Slattery’s directorial debut (he’s the white-haired ad-exec from Mad Men) takes on an additional layer of poignancy, being the last film Philip Seymour Hoffman made before his heroin overdose earlier this year. He’s close to his laconic best as Mickey, a chronic gambler who can’t catch a break. He’s a smart guy, but life has worn away his edges, and it’s hard not to read some of Seymour Hoffman’s own demons into those bleary eyes that are prone to wandering into the middle distance while circumstance seethes and boils around him.
The story is driven by Mickey’s need to quickly raise funds to pay for the funeral of his partner Jeanie’s son who has been – somewhat deservedly – bludgeoned to death. Mickey’s answer is a sure thing at the bookies, which doesn’t pan out, setting in motion a macabre journey for the body of the deceased (moral of the story: never argue with a funeral director). Interlaced is the story of Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins), a former star newspaperman who now recycles his past columns and channels his attention diligently into his drinking habit; his facade of world-weary dignity only barely masks the inflated ego lurking beneath.
Supporting roles from British actor Eddie Marsan as the deliciously spiteful funeral director and John Turturro as Mickey’s hood-with-a-heart-of-gold pal Arthur round off an excellently bedraggled supporting cast – only Christina Hendricks feels out of place as Jeanie, a china-doll in a world where the only porcelain to be found is on the inside of a urinal.
There is, though, plenty of humour amid the squalor, all of it pitch-black. It’s not a million miles in tone from John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard or Calvary, although it somehow manages to surpass both in terms of its unrelenting bleakness.
The fictional God’s Pocket – based on South Philly’s Devil’s Pocket – is painted in streaks of yellow and brown; nothing is new and nothing is clean – it’s the dirty laundry America would rather you didn’t see. “The youth is the hope for the future” slurs a vicious old drunk in a seedy Irish bar, and given the state of the youth in this film, that means there’s little hope at all.
It’s a portrait of what happens when you leave a community to rot; the kernel of depression that grows at the heart of everything, and how sometimes the only way to keep going is to flash a wry smile. It’s a fitting farewell to Seymour Hoffman, one of the finest actors of his generation.
First published in City A.M.