Steel Country, also known as A Dark Place in some locations (I never really understand re-brands of titles), is an intense drama that stars Andrew Scott as Donny Devlin, a garbage truck worker who also, suggestively, exists somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Set in Harburg, Pennyslvania, his life is seemingly day-to-day without many surprises but after the body of local boy Tyler Ziegler is found in the local river, he begins to believe something isn’t right with the verdict of an accidental drowning, especially after Tyler’s Mother tells Donny he’s not the type of boy to ‘go exploring’.
Stylistically and literally, Director Simon Fellows centres his film deep in the old heart of America but this isn’t the era of the supposed good old days, this is post Trump/Pence election shown by early establishing shots of an town that’s corroding and struggling to get by, much like the characters in Steel Country itself. Scott’s Donny is portrayed as a simple yet vulnerable soul but it’s never exhibited in an oppressive way, and this comes down to a strong performance from Scott.
Alongside Scott is Bronagh Waugh’s Donna, a co-worker who honours his often ‘unusual’ behaviour and even begins to help when she realises, and trusts, that he might just be right about some suspicious circumstances. Waugh is authentic and it’s great to see her seamlessly move into American life without any question of her Irish roots. There’s also Denise Gough, who plays Linda – the estranged ex of Donny – who brings a brutal reality to his life, despite them having a kid together (Wendy, played excellently by the up and coming Christa Campbell) and features in some stand-out scenes between the pair.
As the story begins to unravel and we start to discover that there may be secrets lurking beneath the surface, Donny quintessentially turns himself into a vigilant, asking the questions that people don’t want to ask and trying to connect the very feint dots he sees before him. While we’re not sure he has the capability to work out what’s occurred, he’s sure as hell going to push as much as he can.
While he’s rarely socially comfortable in his skin, he is likeable enough to feel empathy with. If anything, this is Donny’s journey towards self-discovery, as he breaks free from his self-made restrictions and it’s all spurred on by his distrust for people in power around him. Whether this is also a subtle allegory for the current American administration could just be fortunate timing but there’s certainly a question hovering over the balance of truth and what’s right, even if the resulting realities we learn are both tragic and heartbreaking.
Steel Country is beautifully, almost effortlessly, filmed by Fellows with cinematography from Marcel Zyskind that really fuels the bleak old-town setting. The film also stands out due to the score and clever use of sound throughout. The team of Benjamin Talbott, Samuel Barnes, Tic Ashfield and John Hardy have worked wonders to build the tension and create a unique atmosphere from start to finish, with echoes of the subtleties of Hans Zimmer’s softer side.
Steel Country is bleak and grimy but, like Donny, it does have a purpose right up to a somewhat substantial, if shocking, conclusion. Our lead goes to extremes and this is down to Andrew Scott’s outstanding work, which keeps you guessing and holds your interest right to the end. This is a very different type of detective story, with an intensity that’s intelligently achieved.
Steel Country is out now in select cinemas and On Demand.
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