Critics’ Reaction to God’s Pocket

Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last role.

God’s Pocket isn’t a great film. It is a decent film or even a good film but that isn’t really the point. I enjoyed watching it recently and so had a flick through some of the reviews from the time of its release (2014). To simplify the plot somewhat – Mickey’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) stepson is murdered on an industrial site but the death is reported as an accident. Mickey’s wife (Christina Hendricks) suspects something isn’t right and Mickey has to find out what, in amongst trying to scrape together enough money for a funeral. Into the mix comes alcoholic journalist Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins) also supposedly looking into the death but more interested in pursuing Mickey’s wife. It is a blue collar, dark and dingy film full of sad, angry and wasted characters in a deprived working class neighbour.

There are lots of films like this. Films that focus on life in downtrodden towns and neighbourhoods in working class America. The Florentine is another that I’ve seen recently that has some similar vibes. They’re good films, not great films. Most of their characters aren’t memorable and that is sort of the point. What interests me about these films is a certain type of critical reaction. It isn’t so much a critique of the film itself, rather than of the people the film portrays and how it portrays them, and often it reveals more about the critic than it does about the film.

In God’s Pocket a lot of the characters are violent, engaged in crime, reckless drinkers or reckless gamblers. There is rarely ever an explanation as why the characters are like that. Some critics hate this, or claim to hate this.

‘But there’s nothing remarkable or even remotely intriguing about the dyspeptic gang of submental sad sacks in this dull, flat fiasco…Characters are shallow, cinematography murky to the point of revulsion’ reads one piece about the film. ‘We are encouraged to find these people stupidly brutal or comedic without being given the slightest idea why they might be that way’ reads another. ‘The film is almost unrepentantly nasty towards its characters’ aimed as a criticism.

What struck me from watching the film and then reading the criticism that followed was that quite often the critics’ view of the film comes second to a sort of distaste towards the characters in the film. They are wasted. Some of them are sad, others angry and violent. There is casual racism occasionally, though not from many of the characters. The picture is dark and dismal. The area is run down. Their lives lack a hope and as the final scene shows, that is translated into a sort of tribal togetherness, an anger towards outsiders and a penchant for meaningless violence. It might not be pretty but in a lot of respects it is realistic.

If the film shows life being utterly cruel to people in left behind working class neighbourhoods that’s because more often than not life is utterly cruel to those people. Whether in America or Britain, go into a bar or pub in a deprived area and meet the people. There will be humour, of course. Perhaps more humour than is on display in God’s Pocket. But there will also be melancholia and nostalgia for a time that probably never existed. There will be anger at outsiders and the world at large. There will be unexplainable violence and ruined, wasted lives. You don’t always know why people are the way they are and you don’t usually need to know or ever get to find out.

It strikes me that a certain type of film critic is uncomfortable with this truth. They’d rather it wasn’t portrayed so bleakly on the screen because it is a world they don’t understand; a situation they can’t comprehend and they hope that if they mock it and criticise it enough it will cease to exist. It is their view of the world that is unrealistic, not the grim, inexplicable nastiness and misery in God’s Pocket.

Of course, for those who have seen the film there is probably a certain irony here – this defence isn’t dissimilar to the last column in the film written by Richard Shelburn, which generates such a controversial and grim reaction. And without delving deep in the history of working class politics and the history of people outside of that class trying to help those communities, that reaction in the film is something that some of those critics will no doubt be completely incapable of understanding as well.

One final point… of course all working class life isn’t like God’s Pocket. It is a snapshot. There are plenty of films (Ken Loach in the UK, films like Nebraska and Lucky in America) which show a much different, equally real side to life in small towns and deprived neighbourhoods. It’s perfectly fine to prefer those portrayals, but don’t hate films like God’s Pocket purely because you wish that people like Mickey and his neighbours didn’t exist.