SPIN is in Park City, Utah, traversing snow and cutting queues to bring you reviews of the next big films (and flops) as they make their Sundance Film Festival 2014 debut.
The postcard for the fictional working-class Philadelphia neighborhood God’s Pocket would be washed in a sepia of grease, dirt, and rotgut. Of course that postcard wouldn’t exist, because who would cop to visiting such a place — a place where, we’re told in heavy-handed voiceover, the only sin the locals can’t escape is that they are from there. And yet, here’s where director John Slattery chose to make his feature-length debut, a cruel and unflinching dark comedy named for the town where the dirty-faced and uneducated argue about things they don’t understand and commit unspeakable acts in a desperate attempt to survive. Mad Men‘s silver fox has previous directorial credits lensing great episodes for the AMC series, but God’s Pocket offers none of the heart or nuance that keeps Don Draper so captivating a character despite his myriad moral failings. The people of God’s Pocket are simply monsters.
Philip Seymour Hoffman appears as Mickey, a bloated-with-booze small-time crook trapped in this miserable little corner of America by marrying one of the natives. Played meekly by Christina Hendricks, Mickey’s dead-eyed wife is mother to Leon (Caleb Landry Jones), a scuzzy piece-of-shit 22-year-old day laborer with serial-killer tendencies. When Leon is killed at his work site — and by god, did he have it coming — Hendricks wields a sort of Helen of Troy mystique to get the men in town to look into the nature of his death, setting in motion a gruesome black comedy of errors that leaves only devastation in its wake. Slattery’s fondness for his Mad Men co-star shows in the way his camera halos her in sunlight; the rest of the cast is drawn in muddy shades of brown as per the film’s ’70s setting.
At times feeling like Coen Brothers Lite™, God’s Pocket‘s accomplished ensemble includes John Turturro as Mickey’s heist partner and chronic gambler, Eddie Marsan as a slimy funeral director, and Richard Jenkins as the vodka-soaked city newspaper columnist casting judgement and ultimately indicting the ignorant for, well, being ignorant.
Slattery’s adaptation of Pete Dexter’s 1983 novel is perverse in that it never gives the huddled masses of God’s Pocket a chance to redeem themselves. Through Jenkins’ disillusioned writer, Slattery treats his cast like animals at the zoo, grotesques to mock and use as examples of how enlightened we are. But it takes an enlightened purview to realize you should never underestimate the animals.