For his film-directing debut, John Slattery has chosen "God's Pocket," a dark-humored and often-violent crime drama about roughnecks in a blighted Northeastern town. It's a far cry from where we usually find Slattery, best known for playing the high-living Manhattanite Roger Sterling on "Mad Men." Though the neighborhood of God's Pocket is fictional, and never precisely located, Slattery's rendering of it is vivid and authentic.
The town is the movie's most compelling character, though Slattery has assembled some of the best actors around to populate it. Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his final roles, plays Mickey Scarpato, an outsider accepted by locals only because he's married to Jeannie (Christina Hendricks). When her loudmouth son, Leon (Caleb Landry Jones), dies in a "workplace accident" -- a tense and morbidly funny scene -- Jeannie senses that something is amiss and commands Mickey to investigate.
What ensues is less a mystery, or even a coherent narrative, than a bleak comedy of errors triggered by Mickey's disastrous decision to bet Leon's funeral money on a long-shot horse. The other main players in this down-at-heel circus are a helpful but hapless wiseguy (a freewheeling John Turturro); a self-important, alcoholic journalist (Richard Jenkins); and a heartless undertaker (the dependably ferocious Eddie Marsan).
Thanks to this cast, all playing to their strengths, and to Slattery's direction, by turns sensitive and muscular, "God's Pocket" nearly overcomes the weakness of its source material. It's co-written by Slattery and Alex Metcalf from a 1983 novel by Pete Dexter ("Paris Trout"), and therein lies the problem. Dexter's colorful characters are often ill-served by wobbly plotting and a pervasive tone of self-pity, and that's what happens here. Taken moment by moment, "God's Pocket" can be funny, jolting and quite moving, but its ugly climax seems oddly off target.
"God's Pocket" is a reminder of what we lost in Hoffman, here delivering one of his seemingly effortless but deep-reaching performances. For Slattery, however, the movie may launch a whole new career.
PLOT A small-time crook in a close-knit town investigates a mysterious death.
RATING R (violence, language, sexuality)
CAST Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christina Hendricks, Richard Jenkins, John Turturro
BOTTOM LINE A dream-team cast and strong work from first-time director John Slattery make this slightly unsteady drama worth a look.