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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Anthony Hopkins in Westworld

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rock and role: Jamie Bell's character Benjamin Grimm is transformed into 'Thing' in the film adaptation of Marvel Comics' 'Fantastic Four'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Hopkins veered between sycophancy and insult in her new chat show
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
In his role as Hamlet, Benedict Cumberbatch will have to learn, and repeat night after night, around 1,480 lines

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Belgian sexologist Goedele Liekens with pupils at Hollins Technology College in Accrington
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The rapper Drake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The gaffer: Prince Philip and the future Queen in 1947
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Style icons: The Beatles on set in Austria
film
Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future
    Berlusconi's world of sleaze: The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM

    Berlusconi's world of sleaze

    The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM
    Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

    Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

    Films and theme parks are just the beginning. Disney believes its control of the now decades-old franchise can bring in merchandise and marketing millions for years to come
    Could the golden age of the gaming arcade ever be revived in the era of the Xbox?

    Could gaming arcades be revived?

    The days when coin-ops were the only way to play the latest video games are gone. But a small band of enthusiasts are keeping the button-pushing dream alive
    Edinburgh Fringe 2015: The 'tampon tax' has inspired a new wave of female comedians to reclaim period jokes

    Heard the one about menstruation?

    Yes, if you have been at the Fringe, where period pieces are taking centre stage