John Slattery’s feature-length directorial debut, God’s Pocket, fits snugly within the tradition of the actors’ picture, the granddaddy of today’s big ensemble films. Ensemble flicks relish star turns; their standard unit is the showstopper monologue. Actors’ pictures are the opposite; everyone does interlocking character work, chewing the roles and not the scenery. Though the term hearkens back to a time when average people approached popular culture cautiously, as if it had an aura of mystery, actors’ pictures are unglamorous, because they emphasize the activity of acting over its potential to impress. In the actors’ picture, the actor is a worker, building scenes and narratives. It’s a genre that grew out of TV in the 1950s and was effectively killed off by TV 50 years later, with the rise of long-haul serials like Slattery’s own Mad Men, a show that’s at its best when it behaves like an actors’ picture.
God’s Pocket owes a sizable debt to the king of the old-school actors’ picture, Sidney Lumet. Set in a fictional Philadelphia neighborhood in the very early 1980s, when everything still looked like the ’70s, it projects a sense of busy, fire-escapes-and-alleyways urban life in the manner of Lumet’s New York-set films, emphasizing every character’s place and turning their interactions into intersections of social strata. There’s Mickey Scarpato (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), a meat wholesaler and part-time thief who is continually reminded that he’s not “from the neighborhood”; Mickey’s wife, Jeanie (Slattery’s Mad Men co-star, Christina Hendricks), the prototypical resigned local girl, unhappy, but too rooted to ever leave; the widely reviled Smilin’ Jack Moran (Eddie Marsan), who owns the neighborhood’s only funeral parlor and gets punched in the nose at least three times during the movie; Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins), the aging, alcoholic, horndog columnist, whose credibility rests on his misplaced affection for “the people of God’s Pocket.”
Though it looks and moves like one of Lumet’s films from the 1970s or ’80s, God’s Pocket lacks the liberal self-righteousness that defined much of the director’s work; in its pessimism, it more closely resembles later efforts Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (which also starred Hoffman) and the severely underrated Find Me Guilty. Adapted from Pete Dexter’s 1983 debut novel—a poison-pen letter to working-class Philly, inspired by the columnist-turned-novelist’s beating at the hands of a mob of readers—God’s Pocket is a black comedy about the underlying rottenness of insular big-city life. Its dovetailed plot is set into motion by two simultaneous events: the theft of a truck full of beef by Mickey and his “business” partner, Bird Capezio (John Turturro), and the death of Mickey’s stepson, Leon (Caleb Landry Jones), at the hands of a pissed-off co-worker. Most of the film unfolds over the next three days, as Mickey struggles to pull together $6,000 to pay Smilin’ Jack for the funeral, and Jeanie, Shellburn, and Bird’s mob associates all attempt to investigate the circumstances of Leon’s death.
The microcosm of God’s Pocket looks scummy and dirt-brown, lit like a county holding cell by cinematographer Lance Acord, and decorated with bent siding and stained wallpaper. The place feels of a piece with the characters; they alternately blend into the surroundings, or emerge from them. As is often the case with actors’ pictures, where style comes second to character, grand formal gestures feel out of place; a late-film sequence, which intercuts a sex scene with a car crash, feels awkward.
It’s no mystery to the viewer who killed Leon, or why. Rather, the crux of the movie lies in exploring how different people—family members, friends, neighborhood acquaintances who barely knew him, and complete outsiders like Shellburn—try to squeeze something out of his death. For Shellburn, it’s another column about the working class. For Jeanie, it’s a way to give meaning to an otherwise wasted life—never mind that Leon was a violent psychopath. For the drunks at the bar, who tell lies about Leon’s kindness, it’s a way to keep up the illusion that, however tough life may be, they’ll always have the neighborhood. For Smilin’ Jack, it’s a big payday.
What identifies Mickey as the protagonist here isn’t screen time, but the fact that he’s the only one who isn’t trying to make Leon’s death into something it isn’t. For him, it’s another obstacle in a life full of them. The performance, one of Hoffman’s last, is unostentatious, but sensitive. Hoffman inhabited lifelong losers better than any other actor, and a scene where Mickey bets Leon’s funeral fund on a horse race plays like a master class in channeled drama, emotions subtly playing across his eyes and lips, but never bursting out of his mouth.