Release Date: May 16, 2014 (limited)
Rating: R for violence, language throughout and sexual content
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 88 min.
Director: John Slattery
Cast: Christina Hendricks, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Eddie Marsan, Richard Jenkins, John Turturro, Domenick Lombardozzi, Caleb Landry Jones

The people of God’s Pocket—a tough neighborhood in South Philadelphia—are all guilty of something. We’re told that they all either steal, cheat at cards, slap their children, or, in the past, have set fire to someone’s home.

The person explaining the foibles of these less-than-upright residents is Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins, Turbo), a veteran newspaper columnist who drinks too much and thinks he knows all there is to know about the people and neighborhood he covers. The late 1970s setting reminds the viewer that there was a time when being a newspaper columnist could make one a local celebrity—or pariah, as the case may be with Richard.

Richard is just one of the characters who’s in for a rude awakening during God’s Pocket, directed by Mad Men’s John Slattery (he plays Roger Sterling on the AMC show) and based on a 1983 novel by Pete Dexter, which feels very far from today. When characters need to contact each other, they pick up gigantic handsets (green and pink in several scenes) and dial each other on their landline phones.

The late Phillip Seymour Hoffman stars as Mickey Scarpato, the husband of Jeanie (Christina Hendrix, Struck By Lightning) and stepfather to Leon (Caleb Landry Jones, Contraband), a switchblade-wielding motor-mouth who, while at a construction site, antagonizes the wrong man and finds himself on the receiving end of a fatal blow to the head. The homicide is covered up by the other men at the site, who, following their own code, claim that Leon’s death was the result of a construction accident.

The incident sets in motion a story that’s played for deadpan laughs but which isn’t often very funny. Rather, God’s Pocket is mostly grim and determined, marked by lives of not-always-quiet desperation.

That desperation comes from Mickey, who sells stolen meat from the back of a truck. He and his cohorts have debts to pay, including the costs of Leon’s funeral (a funeral home director played by Eddie Marsan is amusingly loathsome), and Mickey has to address Jeanie’s suspicion that her son’s death wasn’t accidental. Meanwhile, Leon’s corpse keeps turning up in unexpected places and Richard starts looking into the circumstances surrounding Leon’s death. However, the reporter’s objectivity is sorely tested when he meets Jeanie and is afflicted with a bad case of love at first sight.

God’s Pocket is dark and sometimes—but not always—darkly amusing. Slattery’s take on Dexter’s novel straddles comedy and glum drama—not always successfully—but the film is so beautifully acted all around that its tonal shifts aren’t as problematic as they might have been in the hands of a lesser cast. Hoffman, in one of his final roles, carries the weight of someone who’s stuck and can’t find an easy way out of his difficulties, while Jenkins memorably exhibits a troubling combination of pomposity and self-absorption.

Nevertheless, God’s Pocket is a film we watch at some remove. Slattery captures a cross-section of mostly blue-collar life in a particular place and time, but we don’t much care what happens to the characters.