A lot of reviews of God's Pocket focused on Phillip Seymour Hoffman's performance, as well they should have, since this is a death obsessed movie that came out shortly after he died. But Hoffman was such a consistently magnetic presence on screen that his strong performance here didn't surprise me, and I want to talk about what did surprise me in God's Pocket. (Given that I'm talking about something that I didn't see coming you should infer a giant SPOILER WARNING here.)
In God's Pocket a young man is killed on the job, and his co-workers lie to the cops as part of a cover up. The boy's mother (played by Mad Men's Christina Hendricks) is heartbroken to have to bury her only son and she suspects that there's more to the story than she's been told. When an alcoholic newspaper reporter shows up on her desk to ask her questions about her son's "accident" she is eager to give him whatever he needs to uncover the truth. He comes back the next day and tells her that he needs to take her somewhere, but he won't tell her where. The reporter drives her to the country, puts a blanket out for a picnic, and then puts the moves on her. He even tells her that he loves her, and her son isn't even in the ground yet.
I couldn't believe what I was seeing; that wasn't where I thought that was going at all. But I should be clear that I didn't find that scene unbelievable. Esquire has a feature called What I've Learned where they ask interesting people for life advice. Lynda Carter (most notable for playing Wonder Woman, but was also a beauty queen before that) said: "The short answer is: Yes, there are hardships to being a young, beautiful woman. People just act weird." I've thought about that a lot since I read that when it was published in 2003; "people just act weird" is such a blunt on-the-nose description of what it must be like to be a beautiful woman that it's stuck with me. And watching this grieving mother trying to process what's happening to her on that picnic blanket - well, it was weird. That scene put me inside her life and her struggles more than a hundred scenes with more words could have; the inappropriateness of that scene really struck a chord with me.
In many ways God's Pocket is the sort of movie I almost never like: it's relentlessly bleak, centering around hardships in the lives of the dispirited. But there is something more going on in God's Pocket than merely documenting the lives of these hard living wash-ups as they drink their days away. Actual empathy is generated here, whether that's through Phillip Seymour Hoffman's personal gravity, or the unsettling situations that Christina Hendricks finds herself in through no fault of her own. That compassion is important, because otherwise this is just heaviness with no hope for catharsis, but with it, you have a heartbreaking portrait of people you've seen inside of trying to make it through life. It's a thin difference between those two things, but it can be the most important difference in the world.