PARK CITY, UTAH: John Slattery first read Pete Dexter’s novel God’s Pocket a good ten years ago, and knew that it would make a dynamite movie—but someone else had the rights. “And I forgot about it,” he told the audience at the film’s Sundance premiere Friday. Five years passed, and when he made another inquiry, he discovered that it was available. So he wrestled with the book, working up an outline that became a draft screenplay, “and then I called to say, ‘Okay, let’s go ahead,’ and they said, ‘Oh, we made a mistake, it’s still not available.’” Luckily for Slattery, he’d made a name for himself in the interim playing Roger Sterling on Mad Man (and directing several episodes of that show), so he was finally able to get the movie made, with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead, and Richard Jenkins, John Turturro, and his Mad Men co-star Christina Hendricks in supporting roles. The resulting film is, it must be said, a bit unruly. But Slattery shows real promise as a director, guiding his actors with ease and effectively evoking a very specific time and place.
The time is, in his words, “a blurry period in the late ‘70s,” and the place is God’s Pocket, a working-class Philadelphia neighborhood. The action is compressed to a tight timeframe, a few days culminating in the funeral of Leon (Caleb Ladry Jones), a pill-popping, racist punk. But even punks have mothers, and Leon’s is Jeanie (Hendricks), who becomes convinced that there’s more to the story of his death than what his co-workers and the police are telling her. She enlists her husband Mickey (Hoffman), a low-level grinder with some connections to organized crime, to do some poking around. But poor Mickey just can’t catch a break; he starts the story in bad shape and only gets worse.
Their story is, in Slattery’s description, one of “straight talk and casual violence and mayhem,” equal parts macho posturing, utter desperation, and gallows humor. We’ve seen this world before (Scoresese’s Mean Streets leaps to mind), populated by neighborhood bars, insular communities, petty crimes, and unbending loyalty. Slattery’s direction is moody as hell (sometimes at the expense of logic), and if the tone is uneven, you gotta give him this much: it’s hard to know what loopy turn it’s going to take next.
Documenting it all is Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins), a newspaper columnist who writes of the Pocket with a mixture of affection and condescension (“The working men of God’s Pocket are simple men… whatever they are is whatever they are”). He’s a barely-functioning alcoholic, and the kind of newspaperman who finds it totally appropriate to make broad overtures at a grieving mother like Jeanie. Their interactions lead to some of the film’s oddest, and dreamiest, interludes.
Slattery confessed that, were he to act in the film, Shellburn’s probably the role he’d have played—but that didn’t even enter his mind. “Both are difficult jobs,” he confessed. “Casually dropping into both is extremely difficult with this amount of time and experience. I didn’t wanna do that to myself.” And besides, he said, “if you’re lucky enough to get Richard Jenkins, you should probably get Richard Jenkins.”
Both Hoffman and Hendricks had high praise for their actor-turned-director. “This was obviously personal to John, so that kind of bled through the whole shoot,” Hoffman said. “So you show up, and you’re exposed, and you’re vulnerable, and you’re who that are. And John let that happen, and we let that happen with John.” Hendricks added, “We felt incredibly comfortable, and we obviously, after working together so long, have such a shorthand with one other. And he knows how to answer exactly how I need him to answer.”
Every performance in the picture is strong, balancing quiet moments with show-stoppers, from the leads down to the day players. Slattery knows how to get the best from his actors, and if God’s Pocket is, at times, an odd and unknowable little movie, its left-field vignettes and unexpected juxtapositions confirm Slattery as a director with a sure hand and an adventurous spirit.
God’s Pocket is playing this week at the Sundance Film Festival.