God's Pocket, film review: Philip Seymour Hoffman shines on the dark side of town

4.00

(15) John Slattery, 89 mins Starring: Christina Hendricks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eddie Marsan, Caleb Landry Jones

There is a long tradition of hard-drinking American newspaper columnists who write about big city street life in a romantic and comic way. From Damon Runyon to Jimmy Breslin, these writers are fascinated by violence, criminality, gambling, infidelity and family strife. They see the humour and pathos in stories that, in their basic details, are often sordid or banal. They also relish the eccentricities of types others regard as thugs, slobs and deadbeats.

God's Pocket is adapted from a novel by Pete Dexter, a former Philadelphia columnist with more than a hint of Runyon about him. The film marks the directorial debut of John Slattery, best known as the silver-haired charmer Roger Sterling in TV's Mad Men. Its cast features some of Hollywood's most redoubtable character actors, among them Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final appearances before his untimely death earlier this year.

Hoffman plays Mickey Scarpato, a hapless trucker, thief and would-be family man, married to Jeanie (Christina Hendricks). His performance fully underlines what made him such a distinctive screen presence. He combines menace with a doe-eyed sensitivity, a Fatty Arbuckle-like sense of slapstick with an underlying melancholy. In one typical scene, we see him threatening an undertaker (Eddie Marsan) but then switching from fury to sympathy in an instant as the two men decide to have a beer instead of fighting. Scarpato shares some similarities with the equally sleazy character Hoffman played in Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, one of his most underrated films, in which he robbed his own parents. Hoffman knew how not to overact.

Here, whether staring forlornly at a TV screen in a bookie's as yet another of his horses fails to win or trying to pack a corpse alongside some stolen meat in the back of a truck, Hoffman keeps his equanimity. His understatement adds poignancy and humour to a role that could easily have slipped into sub-Sopranos-style caricature. It helps that he has an easy rapport with John Turturro as Mickey's best friend, Arthur "Bird" Capezio, a loud-mouthed fellow hoodlum who shares his love of gambling.

God's Pocket was given a muted reception at its premiere in Sundance, where its tonal shifts disconcerted viewers. This is at once a crime thriller, a blue-collar drama and a dark comedy. Its richness, though, lies in its idiosyncrasy. It combines quaintness with brutality. Moments of knockabout comedy are interspersed with scenes in which the characters' misery becomes evident. Slattery doesn't disguise the monotony or oppressiveness of his protagonists' lives. The squalor and violence feel far more real than they ever did in Runyon adaptations. Slattery shows a world in which a mild-mannered foreman has no compunctions about ripping out the eye of a heavy who tries to beat him up and in which even a sweet-natured, elderly florist displays psychopathic tendencies.

God's Pocket is a working-class neighbourhood in Philadelphia. The cinematographer Lance Acord shoots the film in dark, grainy fashion, as if to emphasise how tough life is for the residents. There are several scenes in the local bar, where a booze-driven bonhomie does nothing to disguise the despair of the locals.

The film begins with a funeral and then flashes back in time a few days. Jeanie's delinquent son (Scarpato's stepson) Leon (Caleb Landry Jones) is shown heading off to work on a construction site. Scarpato himself is part of a scam to steal and sell on some meat. It's a typical day of toil and low-level criminality in God's Pocket – until a death causes several lives to unravel.

Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins) is the local newspaper columnist assigned to report on the death. He sees himself as a supremely insightful chronicler of everyday life in God's Pocket, someone whose folksy columns capture the community in its contradictions and in its full glory. In fact, he is a sleazy alcoholic whose creative juices long since ran dry.

As a former columnist who knew what it was like to fall foul of his readers, Pete Dexter was presumably drawing on personal experience when he created Richard Shelburn. Jenkins portrays him brilliantly, capturing his seediness and self-deception – the way he hides booze in his desk and sneaks off to bars at every opportunity, even as he tells his editor he doesn't have a drink problem.

God's Pocket has a double-edged perspective on its protagonists. It shows them at their best and worst. At certain points, Shelburn really does seem to be a wise, crusading journalist, standing up for the downtrodden and reporting on stories that his newspaper would otherwise ignore. Then, he'll use his influence to seduce a student or make a pass at a grieving mother.

The film is so character-based that the plot risks seeming like an afterthought. The death which causes such commotion (if not much grief) in the community isn't really a mystery at all. It simply provides an opportunity for Slattery to explore the behaviour of God's Pocket's inhabitants. Relatively minor figures are portrayed in depth. The British actor Eddie Marsan's undertaker, Smilin' Jack Moran, is cynical and manipulative – he preys on a family's grief in order to persuade them to buy an expensive casket – but he has his generous side, too. Even the adolescent who racially abuses a colleague on the building site is given scenes that suggest he is not such a bad kid at heart.

God's Pocket is dour in places. It's a downbeat yarn about mixed-up folk making a mess of their lives. Like Shelburn's columns, it is repetitive and sometimes mawkish. These, though, seem minor quibbles when set against the excellence of the cast. Slattery provides such a feast of acting that you hardly notice the creaks in the storytelling. This isn't Hoffman's final screen performance (he is also in A Most Wanted Man and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, for which part of his performance was digitally recreated following his death) but it is one of the last occasions on which one of the great character actors of recent times can be seen working at full throttle.

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness