God’s Pocket is the kind of low-key high-brow crime drama typical of Continental cinema which Hollywood rarely produces. That probably explains why the American audience didn’t quite know how to take it. It mixes bitterly bleak, stiletto-sharp social observation with slapstick snapshots of comedy, played to perfection by a sweatily lumbering but utterly understated Hoffman. One minute we were snorting with laughter: the next fighting a big lump in the throat.
The story could take place in any close-knit neighbourhood where everyone knows everything about everybody; where all paths cross at the rough-n-ready alehouse every evening, where friendships are forged in a flurry of fists and most insults are forgotten over Alka-Seltzer the next morning. It would translate perfectly well across the Atlantic to the UK, in fact; using a petty-crime-kinda-pays plot to highlight the isolation of the incomer and the unhealthy introspection of the in-crowd.
Set in a washed-out 1980s, the filming and performance are delightfully deadpan while the characters are exaggerated to the very edge of caricature. The drunken sot of a has-been newspaper hack; the wiseguy backstreet boys laying everything on dodgy odds on a sure-thing filly; the loan shark who wants his dollar or he’ll start slicing. They all feel vaguely familiar and comfortable from years of absorbing Italian-American mobster movies.
Then just when you think you have the measure of the film, it subverts expectations and genre norms to produce a totally unexpected instant of ultimate audience satisfaction. There are many moments in this movie where you *know* you shouldn’t enjoying what just happened… but heck, it feels good. Any time you see a big fat cliché looming on the horizon, that’s when God’s Pocket will pull the rug right out from under you. Sometimes these moments steer towards the outright ridiculous but that serves only to sharpen the bite of the underlying message.
So while people are being stabbed, clubbed to death, having their eyes put out and all, the inherent nobility of the working man also comes in for a right kicking – as indeed do a couple of the key characters, not one of whom behaves with any real decency or redeeming moral rectitude. These aren’t people doing bad things for the right reasons: they do bad things because that’s the way they are, plain and simple. And that’s not just the blue-collar guys, by the way; check out the uptown guy, essentially nothing more than a parasite who patronises those he professes to admire, morally corrupt and a loathsome lech to boot.
This may not be Philip Seymour Hoffman’s finest film, but it’s not a bad one to be remembered by.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
God’s Pocket will be available to rent or buy from Amazon in autumn 2014