January 31, 2014



Of all the titles in this year’s Sundance US Dramatic Competition line-up, none may have been more promising on paper than GOD’S POCKET.  Based on a novel by Pete Dexter, it marked the feature directing debut of the actor John Slattery, whose work behind the camera on Mad Men has produced some of the show’s most-praised recent episodes (Slattery also co-wrote the screenplay with Alex Metcalf).  He’d assembled a marvelous cast, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, Christina Hendricks, John Turturro, Eddie Marsan and Caleb Landry Jones, among others.  The dying mill-town setting, while not necessarily conducive to a mainstream smash, sounded fertile enough for a critical hit.

And yet, as so often happens, the pieces frustratingly don’t come together, and although God’s Pocket offers scattered good work, it’s overall a failure.

Tone is the film’s biggest problem.  The huge difference between directing episodes of an established television series and making a feature is that while individual TV episodes have their variations, basically the template has long been set, and the director’s job is to reproduce that existing style.  (Not to mention that in the case of Mad Men, series creator Matthew Weiner is doubtless always on hand to make sure things fit his vision.)  A film is its own unique entity, and an indie film that doesn’t fit into a particular Hollywood genre more than most.  Slattery and his team don’t nail down just what God’s Pocket is supposed to feel like, and the result is that it’s never as much as we’d hope.

At the center of the story is Mickey Scarpato (Hoffman), a small-time crook who’s hoping to pay off his debts by selling some hijacked meat.  Before he can do that, though, his racist thug stepson Leon (Jones) is killed at work, hit in the head by a black co-worker after his abusiveness goes too far.  The other employees don’t like Leon much better, so they collectively allow the murder to be passed off as a fatal workplace accident.  Mickey’s distraught wife (Hendricks) needs her son to have a deluxe funeral, but undertaker “Smilin Jack” (Marsan) won’t give Mickey any credit.  This leads to increasingly bloody hijinks, as Mickey abducts the corpse from the funeral parlor and places him in the refrigerated meat truck, while his buddies start killing each other.  Meanwhile, local reporter Richard Shelburn (Jenkins), who’s celebrated for his lyrical odes to the town but is now on the wrong side of a hard-drinking middle age, starts investigating Leon’s death and then finds himself sidetracked by a sudden enchantment with Mickey’s lovely wife.

This could all have been played seriously or as black comedy; Slattery either unwisely tries for a mix of both, or is incapable of sustaining one of them, because the result starts out as grim drama, lurches into violent farce, then doesn’t seem to know which it is.  Although the actors don’t misstep, they also have very little to work with, and only Jenkins (and in a smaller role, Peter Gerety as a local bar-owner) suggest full-blooded human beings.  Hoffman is fine on a scene-to-scene basis, playing a combination of depression and low-level shrewdness, but Mickey ultimately has little foundation as a character–which might have been OK if it were all being played for laughs, but it’s not.

Slattery fares better on the technical side, giving the town a persuasively mordant late 20th-century look.  (Lance Accord, who’s worked on most of Spike Jonze’s films, is a producer here as well as the cinematographer.)  With little going on to involve the viewer, though, and an uncertain tone, Tom McArdle’s edit feels slow even at a trim 88 minutes.

First films are tough, and God’s Pocket was no easy assignment.  Slattery might have been better served by a less ambitious debut.  Instead, his movie directing career is unfortunately off to an unsteady, somewhat flat start.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."