In God’s Pocket, the neighborhood is the main character. It’s a lower-middle-class working-man’s neighborhood as seen in 1983. In this antiquated area, everybody knows everybody, everybody grew up together, and everybody owes somebody money. It’s a brutal, familiar, tight-knit corner of the world that’s forcibly romanticized by the narrations of heavy-handed reporter Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins) as his arc reflects that of the town: slipping into defeat and alcoholism, and lacking any semblance of order or hope.
The protagonist, Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in an alternatingly fascinating and frustratingly understated performance), is married to Jeannie (Christina Hendricks, whose performance ranges from depressed to really depressed). Their loudmouthed son Leon (Caleb Landry Jones) mouths off at work and gets promptly bumped off by an old man who doesn’t have a single line. Mickey has to pull together the resources for a funeral while handling a couple of other odds and ends about town – none of which seem urgent enough to earn our attention. Meanwhile, Jeannie gets a whiff that there’s a cover-up over her son’s death, which was played off as an accident. This puts into motion a few of the more interesting confrontations, and provides an excuse for narrator/reporter Shellburn to become directly involved with the main cast.
The problem is that we don’t really care about the cover-up or the investigation. The punk deserved his fate. And Mickey doesn’t seem to care much either, only grudgingly agreeing to ask around about it, which is about all he does. For what it’s worth, we’d rather just let it lay and move on, making the machinations of the story ultimately uninteresting as they amble forward alongside the subdued, apathetic protagonist.
Slattery’s direction imbues the movie with a dreary stillness. It’s filmed with a gritty texture and muted palette that sings late ’70s style, but it doesn’t achieve the unsettling tone or volatility that gives townie films like Mean Streets that visceral vibe, nor does it achieve any comedic notes compelling enough to evoke a reaction. There are punctuated moments of abrupt violence in God’s Pocket, but no sustained tension nor momentum: only a suffocating numbness. Even in its sparse moments of excitement or levity, the static tone refuses to engage the viewer.
Maybe Slattery felt this was a time and place worth memorializing. Maybe it touched on personal or autobiographical themes for him. But it lacks the nostalgia or reverence that would make that assumption a certainty. Even though it deals with heavy content, God’s Pocket is far too understated to encourage an emotional connection to the audience. While events range from the banal to the ridiculous, it’s hard to tell as a viewer if we’re supposed to be sweating or laughing. Some characters are caricatures, others are deeply intense. But we don’t get deep enough inside any of them to understand their goals or become invested in the outcome, which is a flaw no matter what genre or tone the filmmaker is trying to achieve. The residents of God’s Pocket keep all outsiders at arm’s length – and that’s just what the movie does to viewers.