Film Review – Steel Country (2018)

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Andrew Scott is having a moment – and it’s not the first time. His gloriously mercurial Moriarty in Sherlock garnered legions of fans and now he’s showing the extent of his range as an actor. The dog collared object of Fleabag’s affection, he’s currently preparing to appear on stage at London’s Old Vic in a revival of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. And, sandwiched between the two, is his latest film, the American-set Steel Country.

It’s 2016. Trump is running for president and, like so many other former steel towns, Harburgh in Pennsylvania is dying on its feet: the mills have closed down, jobs are scarce and the only ways of passing the time are in the bar or following local sport. Then a six year old boy is found dead in the  river. Garbage man Donny Devlin (Scott) fixates on it: the little boy used to wave to him every week from his window and that, for Donny, means there was a connection between them. He knows there’s more to the death than meets the eye. But his determination to uncover the truth leads to him becoming even more of an outsider in the town and puts his life in danger.

A simple story, then, one that concentrates very much on Donny’s character and his limitations but allows the other characters to breathe. His mental capacity is never openly commented on and we’re left to make our own judgement: certainly, he holds down his job as a garbage man but he’s easily obsessed by small details and has a childlike quality, especially when it comes to his relationship with Linda (Denise Gough), the mother of his daughter Wendy (Christa Beth Campbell) but who now lives with another man. The girl is the result of one night stand but, in Donny’s  mind, he and Linda are still together and he’s desperate for them to have a life together, even if it’s patently obvious that will never happen. It means that when his work partner, the earthy and practical Donna (Bronagh Waugh), makes it clear that she’s more than just fond of him, he backs off in alarm.

It’s a gloomy life in an equally grey town, one where little or nothing happens. The local cop never has homicides to deal with, those lumbering freight trains always pass through but never stop and the most life in the place is in the river itself, the only thing constantly on the move. It makes for a sombre film, one where the audience’s sympathies are very much invested in the main character, especially when his quest for the truth turns him into something of a Christ-like figure. Scott, inevitably, is great in the role, giving his character a quirky tilt of the head and a slightly shambling walk, yet his naivete is at the heart of his appeal – that, and his vulnerability. There are strong performances, too, from Gough and Waugh as the two women in his life, the latter being a good influence on him, if only he could see it.

There’s no happy endings in Steel Country, nor is this an idyllic country town. Instead, it offers a portrait of a declining America, one where it’s impossible to climb out of a depression and where depravation corrupts simple values like the truth. And where the most childlike, trusting person in town is the only one with the courage to uncover it. Whatever the cost.

Freda Cooper | [rating=3]

Thriller, Drama | Cert: 15 | UK, 19 April (2019) | Bulldog Film Distribution | Dir. Simon Fellows | Andrew Scott, Denise Gough, Bronagh Waugh, Christa Beth Campbell.