While Simon Fellows’ latest directorial work is primarily a mystery thriller — part whodunnit, part character study, part conspiracy drama — the prominent ‘TRUMP/PENCE’ lawn signs littered through its opening title sequence make its underlying intentions clear. As its title suggests, Steel Country is as much an exploration of America’s forgotten dark corners as it is a grimy murder-mystery, using its fictional setting of Harburg, Pennsylvania, a former US industrial town, to explore ideas around mistrust of shady authorities, class divides, and those who fall through the cracks of society.
At the centre of it all is Andrew Scott, swapping his Fleabag priest uniform for a different set of overalls as Donny, a socially outcast bin-man — a character who is strongly hinted as being on the autistic spectrum, though rather refreshingly it’s never directly addressed. Donny notices that local middle-class boy Tyler, who would wave at him on his work rounds, has gone missing — and when the body shows up not long after, the boy’s mother confesses her doubts about his disappearance and the subsequent official investigation. It’s enough to spark Donny into action, but his own interests in solving the case — through decidedly unorthodox means — place him in physical danger and under suspicion from the locals.
An impressively swampy atmosphere.
Scott is a committed performer, and his intense energy is a good fit for Donny’s obsessive spiral as he tries to discover the truth. But it’s a heavily mannered turn, full of tics and odd flourishes that come off as distractingly showy rather than immersive. It puts a distance between Donny and the audience that’s often difficult to overcome. Still, there’s welcome commentary in the idea that the outsider, the lowly bin-man, is the only person who cares enough to dig a little deeper — even while Donny’s own family issues, including a daughter who he has a strained relationship with, continue to fester.
Despite its problems, Steel Country doesn’t outstay its welcome at a concise 88-minute runtime, and benefits from an impressively thick, swampy atmosphere. Fellows conjures a moody portrait of Harburg right from the opening credits, one which he maintains all the way through to the film’s fittingly downbeat finale.