[16 May 2014]
At the time of his death in February of this year, Philip Seymour Hoffman had completed two other films, with a third (The Hunger Games: Mockingbird in production. This means we have the last few efforts of his life to savor.
It also means that watching God’s Pocket is bittersweet, reminding us that he was so richly talented and indisputably necessary, one of the most exciting actors of the last two decades. John Slattery’s directorial debut provides another example of Hoffman’s considerable range and conviction: under these sad circumstances, that’s about the best for which we can hope.
Based on a 1983 novel by former Philadelphia Daily News columnist Pete Dexter, the movie details the comings and goings of a bevy of depressed, dingy mooks from “the Pocket”, a fictionalized blue-collar Philly neighborhood. Hoffman plays Mickey Scarpato, a haggard looking man who drives a meat truck and is ready to drop everything to run a scam or steal a vehicle with his good friend Bird (John Turturro).
The film opens, appropriately enough, with a funeral. This turns out to be for Leon (Caleb Landry Jones), the horrific, racist son of Mickey’s wife, Jeanie (Christina Hendricks). He was killed unceremoniously by a lead pipe to the head after holding a straight razor to the neck of a older, black coworker at a construction site.
More often than not, this sort of urban drama falls back on platitudes, with dank, dirty buildings and garbage-strewn streets serving as handy analogies for the lives of its beaten down protagonists. But if Slattery’s film checks off these clichés, it also offers occasional challenges to them. “The working men of God’s Pocket are simple men,” intones Daily Times columnist Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins) as the film opens. “Everyone here has stolen something from somebody else, or when they were kids, they set someone’s house on fire, or they ran away when they should have stayed and fought.” His overwrought voice-of-the-people style is later mocked by a passing group of these noble “working men”, who overhear Shellburn recording yet another of these melodramatic passages in his parked car.
Mickey’s story is more complicated than this. Always hunched over and early on encumbered by having to scrape up enough dough for a burial for his stepson, he has no chance of a break in cost from the unsympathetic funeral director, Smilin’ Jack (Eddie Marsan). Mickey heads to the racetrack, where he loses, predictably. Still, it’s a devastating moment captured brilliantly in Hoffman’s face, who plays Mickey with just the right note of pathetic resolve.
Mickey might not give up easily, but he seems to expect nothing but failure to befall him. He makes no bones about his questionable choices, but he doesn’t hold other peoples’ bad ideas against them, either. When he’s told that his wife is rumored to have slept with Shellburn, he doesn’t show shock or fury as much as acquiescence.
The performance showcases Hoffman’s uncanny ability to inhabit his characters. Here that character is surrounded by equally drab and unappealing people, the derelicts at the Hollywood Bar across the street from the Scarpato’s house and the busted mugs in Shellburn’s newsroom. Even luminescent Jeanie, wooed by Shellburn the moment he meets her, never harbors any illusions about her true lot in life.
Their grim affect is underscored by a soundtrack of slow-picked guitar progressions under heavy reverb. At the same time, though, moments of dark humor keep the movie from becoming overly turgid: after shooting some would-be thugs at point-blank range, Bird’s Aunt Sophie (Joyce Van Patten) calmly tells him, “You’re getting blood all over your pants… This is not the time to go wacko.” It’s like sprinkling the unrelenting prose of Hubert Selby, Jr. with a light dusting of powdered sugar.
The film ends with a coda that is sweetly uninspired, as Mickey and his fellows go on the lam from their decaying urban hell and hole up in a trailer home down south. Mickey is last seen sitting on a lawn chair in the bright Florida sun, a newspaper on his lap, and the sound of distant target-practice gunfire in the background. He’s not exactly content, but closer to joy than he’s used to.
It’s an image that might remind you of the troubled Hoffman as well, a difficult man enjoying a respite from his troubles for however brief a moment. As far as happy endings go, this might have to do.