There’s a heavy weight that God’s Pocket carries unfairly even before it begins: It features one of the last performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Under such sorrowful auspices, what would otherwise be a footnote in a longer career acquires both a preemptive bittersweetness and the loaded hope of greatness, neither one of which the quietly disappointing God’s Pocket can really bear.
Hoffman himself is, of course, excellent. As Mickey Scarpato, an outsider in the dour Rust Belt enclave of God’s Pocket (where to be an outsider is a summary judgment), Hoffman effortlessly carries an understated, slightly adrift intensity punctuated by moments of pitch-black humor that suggests a much better movie than he’s occupying. And there are some small scenes that carry emotional weight, thanks to John Turturro, with whom he generates some long-fond chemistry, and Christina Hendricks, a solid actress who feels disconnected from the movie’s attempts at blue-collar verisimilitude yet still seems committed to the material. The material, however, is the problem. Adapted from Pete Dexter’s 1983 novel and centering on the small-stakes disasters that follow the death of Mickey’s worthless stepson (Caleb Landry Jones), there are occasional feints at sketching subplots, but they never move much beyond the run-down architecture. Interludes with local journalist Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins), living the particular life of those indie-movie men who land a series of younger women to illustrate the vagaries of life, don’t help.
John Slattery’s debut behind the camera is earnest but tonally unsure, vacillating between half-hearted noir and the first draft of a Coen brothers comedy, to the benefit of neither. Still, when the film’s following Hoffman, every facial expression and labored sigh tells a story. In the end, God’s Pocket stands as a testament to Hoffman’s ability to draw you in, no matter what.