A ring of violence and absurdity widens over the course of “God’s Pocket,” unexpectedly catching up a lot of people and threatening to bring down much of the film’s titular working-class neighborhood where heavy drama veers — sometimes intentionally, sometimes not — into the ludicrous.
Yet it’s hard to know what co-screenwriter and first-time feature director John Slattery (one of the stars of “Mad Men”) is after in “God’s Pocket,” based on a novel by Whidbey Island resident Peter Dexter. Depth and emotional resonance prove elusive, though the film is always interesting; a fine cast delivers; Lance Acord’s cinematography is a fascinating palette of 1970s earth tones; and the story’s serial misdeeds keep flipping over into something stunningly worse.
What’s left is an awkward blend of tragedy and comedy, in a movie that doesn’t feel as if it has earned the right to be either.
Set in a South Philadelphia neighborhood, “God’s Pocket” is a place where — according to a corrupt, alcoholic newspaper columnist (Richard Jenkins) who mythologizes the community in print — everyone has sinned against everyone else, yet collective identity is always strong.
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The late Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a marginal criminal whose stepson is murdered. The fallout is like a three-ring circus: a gouged-out eye, shootings, a disastrous horse race, a nauseating affair and a meat-truck collision.
Hoffman is engrossing as a decent man lumbering through an uncontrolled life. Christina Hendricks is a blur as his unhappy wife, and John Turturro is excellent as Hoffman’s buddy. Here’s hoping Slattery gets behind a camera again and builds on the strengths of “God’s Pocket.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org