It's always unfortunate to see potential wasted onscreen, in acting, writing, or directing. It's worse to see it happen all at once with artists universally known as capable of much more. God's Pocket, the directorial feature debut of Mad Men's John Slattery and featuring one of Philip Seymour Hoffman's last performances, is a tonal mess, listless for two-thirds until violence erupts seemingly at random. It wants to be Fargo, a tale of crime in an insular community and its mounting complications; instead, it collapses into laughable dramatics that fall flat.
Adapted from the novel by Peter Dexter and set in 1978 in the south Philadelphia neighborhood that gives the movie its title, God's Pocket follows Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman), his wife Jeanie (Christina Hendricks), and his stepson Leon (Caleb Landry Jones). Working a factory job, Leon is a loud-mouth, a kid too quick to brag while waving around his straight razor and far too ready with threats for the wrong men. A blow from another laborer that's meant to put him in his place ends up killing him, and when the police arrive everyone confirms it was a workplace accident.
As longtime Philly columnist Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins) says at the film's beginning, God's Pocket is a blue-collar neighborhood of working folk. To him, Leon's death is like any other: Men live and die there without ambition to leave but with plenty of resentment for outsiders. They're the kind of sad people who sit in the same bars every night for years living with the same unfulfilled dreams and same repeated delusions. They take drunken swings at each other in those bars, on the street, and at funerals, and it's business as usual.
If his assessment isn't meant to sound simplistic and condescending, it certainly reads that way, but Shellburn walks around God's Pocket like a minor celebrity anyway, venerated for being the only one not from the neighborhood to get what it's really like there.
Slattery's rendering of the place fits that cartoonishly salt-of-the-earth description, for better and worse. The streets and homes appear in grays and browns, cheerless, used places looking at once in steady decay and as if they've been that way forever. The period costumes and production design may be the most convincing elements because the performances, while well-acted, go without the support of characterizing details to shore up their authenticity.
It's not enough to know the basics — that Mickey and his buddy Arthur (John Turturro) work selling meat, steal things, owe debts, and get misty-eyed when they bet on the ponies. The script written by Slattery and Alex Metcalf is so spare on the specifics of character that not even Hoffman can elevate Mickey — who matter-of-factly weathers Leon's death and Jeanie's out-of-nowhere conviction that her son didn't die the way the report says — beyond a cipher of a sad sack.
Shellburn, whom Jeanie calls upon to investigate, may be the most fleshed out. That's an odd choice since he turns out to be both a scumbag who never performs the investigation for which he was brought in (but does trade on his fame to seduce Jeanie) and ultimately tangential to most of the plot.
Lacking stakes and any sense of urgency, God's Pocket exists in the space adjacent to a well-told story. Mickey's struggle to find enough money to bury Leon should be enough to compel, but by not investigating these people's lives deep enough to make them full characters, the movie promises authenticity and delivers a view through the lens of a tourist. In the end it misses the point as much as Shellburn does, wasting the potential of its story and its actors.