John Slattery’s God’s Pocket is a study of a sequestered milieu, the Philadelphia neighborhood of the film’s title, that’s both leery of outsiders and problematically complacent with all its locally grown faults. The shaggy-dog story takes flight when Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a small-time crook, learns that his erratic son, Leon (Caleb Landry Jones), has died accidentally on a construction site. His mother (Christina Hendricks), however, seems suspicious and demands that Mickey ask around about what really happened. He half-heartedly agrees, but outsources the interrogation to his partner in crime, Burt (John Turturro), who hands it off to someone else. In accordance with the story itself, little headway into this do-it-yourself investigation is made.
Looking in from the outside of God’s Pocket, purporting to understand it, is severely alcoholic and morose newspaper columnist Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins). The film, set in 1978, opens with him reciting his own article’s words in voiceover, expressing the neighborhood’s core values, yet it’s difficult to tell if his dry voice is laced with contempt or respect, a question mark that plagues the film itself. The gloomy photography, lived-in production design, and weary performances would imply that this is a dour examination of the toll God’s Pocket takes on its populace, how its no-way-out environs rouse a certain fatalism, transforming people into hopeless thieves and barflies. But some of the film’s plot elements, as well as depictions of its characters’ ineptitude, hint at something more blackly comic. For instance, when Mickey and Burt steal a meat truck, they struggle to keep the stolen merchandise refrigerated because Burt’s electricity keeps cutting out. The film has many droll bits similar to this one, but they never sufficiently mesh with the more sensitive articulations of personal despair, and so it becomes difficult to know whether we’re meant to empathize with these characters or laugh at them.
The screenplay, based on Pete Dexter’s 1982 novel and co-written by Slattery and Alex Metcalf, raises many ideas, but sees none of them through. Shellburn, tasked by his paper to investigate Leon’s death, winds up in a hazy romantic dalliance with Mickey’s wife, expressing affection by pointing out she’s merely an afterthought to her husband. Of course, Leon and his death quickly become irrelevant to Shellburn. It’s a wicked circle that the film itself unwittingly plays right into. As Mickey’s issues continually mount, he responds by bellying up to the bar and ignoring them, and that gruff indifference ultimately comes to epitomize God’s Pocket.