Heaven help those who struggle each day in God’s Pocket

Actor John Slattery makes an ambitious, occasionally awkward, debut as the co-screenwriter, producer and director of God’s Pocket, a gritty adaptation of Pete Dexter’s novel. The film boasts a star-studded cast including Slattery’s “Mad Men” co-star Christina Hendricks and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final performances.

The story takes place in a downtrodden, blue-collar neighborhood in Yonkers known to its residents as “God’s Pocket.” Most of the inhabitants live dead-end lives that deader and deader with each passing day.

This proves literally true for Leon (Caleb Landry Jones), a raving, razor-wielding racist killed on a construction site one morning. Jeanie (Hendricks), his understandably distraught – and fairly delusional – mother is certain there’s more to his death than the reported accident (she’s absolutely correct, as the audience has seen), and goads her husband Mickey (Hoffman, also a producer) into having the incident looked into further.

It’s this fateful act that sends the film’s characters spiraling into further despair and the story into further tragedy. The specifics are best not divulged here so as not to spoil some intricate twists. Much like Dexter’s prose, the film is ragged and rough around the edges. That’s a part of Dexter’s appeal and so too the film’s, although very often it’s the actors who come to the film’s rescue.

Like many actors-turned-directors, Slattery allows the members of his cast to each take center stage at one time or another, which helps smooth over some awkward story leaps. Richard Jenkins is first-rate as a booze-soaked reporter – the kind who still uses a typewriter, bless him! – who takes an unexpectedly personal interest in the case, Eddie Marsan is memorable as the local mortician who wants his money, and reliable John Turturro plays a friend of Mickey’s with some shady underworld ties. There’s also a show-stopping turn by Joyce Van Patten (Slattery’s real-life mother-in-law) as Turturro’s pistol-packing aunt.

As the grief-stricken Jeanie, Hendricks can’t help but appear somewhat glamorous for the neighborhood – and the circumstances – even when dressed-down (although her bright red dress rather accentuates her curves), but she plays her role with conviction.

As for Mickey, this is the sort of self-destructive loser that Hoffman played so well and so often, acutely able to make him empathetic if not lovable. It’s bittersweet seeing him. He’s in fine form, as he almost always was, and it’s sad to know we’ll not see his work continue and grow – as well as infuriating that it was he who deprived us – and himself – of those riches.

God’s Pocket is scheduled to open Friday. !

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