Inevitably, John Slattery’s directorial debut has been overshadowed somewhat by the tragic passing of its lead star, Philip Seymour Hoffman. As such, audiences are almost looking out specifically for a stunning performance, willing it on even more so than usual. However you don’t have to look very hard, nor do you have to will it on at all, as the superlatives come naturally and without contrivance – as Hoffman steals the show in remarkable fashion, turning in a performance that we had grown to expect from the immensely talented performer.
Hoffman plays Mickey Scarpato, the beleaguered husband to Jeanie (Christina Hendricks) and step-father to the obnoxious, loathsome Leon (Caleb Landry Jones), striving to make ends meet in the unforgiving town of God’s Pocket. The latter faces his comeuppance however, when he is killed at work following a racist attack on a fellow co-worker. Though the police feel satisfied that his death was entirely accidental, the victims family are less convinced, and so Mickey sets off alongside his close associate Arthur (John Turturro) to determine the truth, while also attempting to raise enough funds to ensure they’re able to bury the body.
God’s Pocket is a grimy, bleak and desolate affair, with an atmosphere that seems almost tangible, as though you could run your fingers on the cinema screen to find a layer of dirt beneath. And while Slattery must be commended for creating such an ambiance, the picture dips carelessly into a more farcical, surrealistic territory, which does nothing but devalue the more sincere and severe aspects of this piece. However there is enough here to admire, as of course Hoffman’s performance – one filled with vulnerability and emotion – is breathtaking, while supporting roles for the likes of Richard Jenkins and Eddie Marsan make up this impressive cast. Hoffman’s Mickey represents the viewer too, as we peer almost voyeuristically into this deranged, dark world from his perspective, and crucially, he isn’t from God’s Pocket, allowing us a detached, outsiders perspective.
It’s also intriguing how the murder this entire film hinges on is one that comes with little empathy. So often in films of this ilk, we are rooting for the lead roles, desperately hoping they get to the bottom of the crime and discover the truth. However in this instance, Leon was so despicable, and the perpetrator so sympathetic, that we instead hope the truth remains suitably hidden, subverting the genre somewhat. However, and in spite of the positive elements, God’s Pocket does feel like wasted potential, as with this cast and the potentially compelling narrative to boot, it remains difficult to fully immerse yourself in the tale and emotionally invest in the world. Hoffman’s performance may be nothing short of fantastic, but sadly it’s one that is better than film itself.