There’s a moment in John Slattery’s feature film debut God’s Pocket, where a disgruntled barman calls last orders, and switches the lights on to indicate his wish for everybody to go home. The brightness is unforgiving, shining a light on this swamp of gaunt, decrepit punters, who, much like the viewer, have to adjust their eyes to the harsh glow, wishing for it be dark again. In a sense, this one moment is emblematic of the entire film, as we cast a light over a society, who don’t want to be seen, perfectly content with a life spent in the shadows.

Our entry point into this world – and one of the many people drowning their sorrows in the aforementioned sequence – is Mickey Scarpato, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. When his ignorant, unhinged step-son Leon (Caleb Landry Jones) is killed in an incident at work, when a black colleague lashes out following a string of racist expletives aimed in his direction. Leon’s mother Jeanie (Christina Hendricks) is convinced that, contrary to what she’s been told by the police, it wasn’t an accident. It’s then left to Mickey and his associate Arthur (John Turturro) to discover what really happened, while in the meantime raise enough funds to ensure they have a place to bury the corpse. All the while, newspaper columnist Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins), is studying this haphazard way of life, in time for his latest, potentially damning article.

The premise to this piece is intriguing to say the least, as the entire narrative hinges on the murder of Leon – and in most cases, the viewer would be sympathetic towards the victim, and his family, especially as we witness the world from their perspective. But not in this instance – as Leon was a nasty, vindictive racist with no endearing qualities, leaving the viewer in a position whereby we’re actively against our protagonists getting to the bottom of the incident, subverting the genre somewhat. It’s actually the erratic, capricious tone that is the biggest shortcoming, as Slattery’s intentions are never quite tangible. At times the film is surreal and almost farcical, which does nothing but devalue the more severe, naturalistic aspects of the picture, and vice versa. That being said, the realism is somewhat difficult to abide by as it is, as the setting is so incredibly bleak and miserable, to the point where it just becomes ridiculous.

Thankfully, however, an exceptional lead performance by Hoffman ensures the film maintains an element of class. He simply illuminates the screen in the only way he knew how. Perhaps given the recent tragedy, you’re willing on a special performance, and looking out for it more so than usual– but you don’t have to look very hard, as his empathetic vulnerability and distinctive humility he bears emanates off the screen. Sadly, though, and much like his other picture still to come, A Most Wanted Man – it’s a performance better than the movie itself. In God’s Pocket he is blessed with a great character though, and brilliant entry point into this world – because he’s not from the eponymous, blue collar neighbourhood this film is set, and instead is an outsider, who had merely moved in. It makes him objective, and he represents the viewer as a result, able to have that disconnect and peer almost voyeuristically into this area from the outside.

There is just so much wasted potential to this film as the cast (which also consists of the wonderful Eddie Marsan), matched by a narrative that should make for a compelling feature, and yet it’s difficult to not feel somewhat underwhelmed when leaving the cinema. Nevertheless, what Slattery has achieved with this debut production, is atmosphere, as he has created a grimy, bleak and ultimately morbid affair. If you were to put your hand into God’s Pocket, you’d come out with a fistful of dirt.