Film

Philip Seymour Hoffman Gives One of His Last Performances in 'God's Pocket'

Piers Marchant

John Slattery's directorial debut provides another example of Philip Seymour Hoffman's considerable range and conviction.


God's Pocket

Director: John Slattery
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro, Christina Hendricks, Eddie Marsan, Richard Jenkins, Caleb Landry Jones, Jack O'Connell, Domenick Lombardozzi
Rated: R
Studio: IFC Films
Year: 2014
US date: 2012-05-09 (Limited release)
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Trailer

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.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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