God’s Pocket (2014) BFI Christina Hendricks & John Slattery Q&A
The inhabitants of God’s Pocket, the idiosyncratically named blue-collar area of Pittsburgh aren’t exactly the most honest of sorts, but they’re fiercely proud of their self-proclaimed salt of the earth status. These hard-drinking, hard-fighting blue-collar men and their sour-faced women aren’t exactly hardened criminals, but if the opportunity arises to make a few bucks without Uncle Sam taking his 30% or a violent persuasion shy of being hospitalised to follow their instructions, well, then so be it. Based on the 1983 novel by Pete Dexter this big screen directorial debut from John Mad Men Slattery has attracted an impressive cast list, an ensemble piece twinned with central performances from Christina Hendricks as Jeannie Scrapota, a recently bereaved mother whose drug-addled son has been bludgeoned to death at his construction job after inciting a fellow colleague to protect himself from his threatening and taunting behaviour. Jeanie’s husband Mickey (the perennially exhausted Philip Seymour Hoffman) tries to raise the funds for the funeral through a ramshackle combination of gambling tips, stolen meat carcasses and his own streetwise kudos, while his emotionally sundered wife suspects that her son’s death might be suspicious and not the industrial accident that the witnesses reported to the police. The case attracts the attention of local journalist Richard Shelbourn (a scene stealing Richard Jenkins) who fancies himself as an East Coast Bukowski without the writing talent, a perpetually sizzled poet of the streets who takes a shine to Jeannie who might be his celestial saviour in disguise……
This occasionally impressive but ultimately frustrating film is worth a punt for the cast list alone – great characters actors such as Eddie Marsen as a slimy Undertaker and John Turturo as a local criminal minnow also light up the dank and burdened screen – but one can’t help that more attention on the characters and drunkenly meandering plot wouldn’t have gone amiss. Tonally the film shifts from the working class pathos to broad comedy to bone crunching violence at the safety release cock of a .38 snub nose special, it certainly keeps you on your toes and there is one specific scene involving an unexpected geriatric reaction to two goons trepassing on a local florists premises, that jaw-dropping scene got quite the audience reaction and probably is worth the price of admission alone. If the film was shot in odourama then you’d be subjected to a choking melange of overflowing ashtrays, stale cheap bourbon and sweat saturated wifebeater shirts, a aimless mishmash of a life lived through a resgined booze sodden lens, much like the films shrug-inducing conclusion. Slattery cut his directing teeth on a few episodes of Mad Men and his technique is unfussy and detached, letting the actors ‘be’ and patrol the locations with an instruction to his operator to follow their movements with minimal interference, with little in the way of thought around how you can build a performance in the edit, through close-ups and in characters space and relations to each other. The film smacks of his theatrical background which would be fine if the characters had a tensile trajectory, but he does manage to build a pungent, sullen atmosphere of quietly crumpled lives.
The Jonathan Romney hosted Q&A following the screening was (unlike the film) a largely sober affair, if the characters of Mad Men can be said to be mannered, distant and rather aloof then Slattery and Hendricks certainly emit that persona in the flesh. Just to be a panting male for a moment she has quite a presence in the flesh and was the undisputed cente of attention in the room, so its a shame she had so little to play with in the movie which I’ll come back to shortly. Perhaps the most interesting observation were Slattery’s production anecdotes around the time critical severity of the production, with actors literally only available for a day or two here and there to get into character and costume on narrowly timed location permits, giving him little time to improvise or elaborate on set. I did notice how gloomy and deliberately sour the cinematography was with all the blues and reds washed out in favour of the blacks and browns, so was pleased as punch when this was remarked by Slattery who advised that they were actually unable to shoot the film on his favoured stock as Kodak don’t produce it anymore so he was forced to turn to digital – a lament we shall be hearing more of I suspect. He referenced The Friends of Eddie Coyle as his visual inspiration which is a wonderful choice, that grim urban noir is a fantastic picture and you can sense the thematic connections, with exhausted men leading exhausted lives in exhausted cities.
Of course the whole appearance of Philip Seymour Hoffman hangs like a dark shroud over the film and he is his usual ramshackle best, with his co-star and director reporting the usual testament that he was a very likeable, approachable and fantastically talented guy, generous with his time and instincts, building his performances and characters through trial and error in rehearsals, through costume choices and posture, through detailed and intelligent interaction with his director and co-stars. It’s therefore grimly depressing to see such a spectacularly underwritten role for Christina Hendricks as Jannie, she has precisely one mode in the entire film – bereaved – and gets absolutely zero development or insight into the choices she has made with her life, and the question as to why she would remain with such a shambolic slug as Mickey or look to the middle-aged, bald, barely functioning alcoholic Richard as a replacement suitor is left utterly unexamined. For a character driven film this is a near fatal blow, although Hoffman butresses the screen through his always eminently watchable shuffiling and mumbling he’s not exactly breaking new ground, so what you’re left with is a collection of amusing scenes which don’t particular solidify into any resolution, but at a brisk 90 minute run-time it just about rings last orders before the nausea starts to sets in. Thankfully we have one more Hoffman performance to enjoy (The Hunger Games nonewithstanding) in A Most Wanted Man which I’m hearing strong things about, after which we will all have earned a drink;