Tim Roth is one of those actors who’s so good, you don’t even notice him. From blending into David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and anchoring British drama Broken to busting blocks in The Incredible Hulk and Tim Burton’s The Planet of the Apes, he’s as eclectic as he is excellent. His chances to shine in the spotlight are rare, resulting in the creepy nurse drama Chronic and the scene-stealing hilarity of Oswaldo in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Sky original drama Tin Star gives him another chance to take the lead – and he grabs it with both hands.
He plays Jim Worth, a former London copper turned Sheriff in Little Big Bear, Canada. Jim’s hoping for a fresh start in the Rockies, where he can focus on looking after his family – wife Angela, daughter Anna and son Petey – and kicking his addiction to the bottle. The rules of TV, though, dictate that a new life is never that simple, and, sure enough, his hoped-for domestic expat bliss is blown away within the first episode.
Rowan Joffe, who wrote Before I Go to Sleep and 28 Weeks Later, is quick to stream the lakeside town with intriguing psychological drama and nail-biting action – the final sequence of the opening hour is horrifying brutal, given added weight by the trauma and shock visibly weighing on the shoulders of Roth’s troubled law man. There’s a familiar knack from the man who penned The American for balancing bursts of violence with a quiet, rural backdrop – a juxtaposition that has gotten no less satisfying over decades of crime drama.
But the Joffe who gave us the Brighton Rock remake is also present, as the show’s opening four episodes expand their scale a little too quickly and ramp up the melodrama without hesitation. The basic premise of a quiet Canadian town tainted by the arrival of a major company, North Stream Oil, which brings with it corporate greed, criminals and cash-flashing migrant workers, is full of dramatic promise and topical interest. However, it’s also full of clunky dialogue and occasionally uneven shifts in tone.
The series is ostensibly a revenge thriller, as Jim seeks to rid the town of the blood-soaked corruption that’s polluting its streets. When it’s focusing on the family man doing right by his loved ones, it’s a hugely compelling watch, as Jim begins an inevitable slide back down the neck of a whisky bottle. Essentially becoming another person (remnants of his old undercover persona, Jack, flash to the surface), the show captures the striking disjoint between the two sides of our hero, as one downs shots in the local bar and unleashes punches in the toilets, while the other stares ominously out of a mirror.
It’s a rampage that leads his paths to cross with Elizabeth Bradshaw (Christina Hendricks), the PR guru for North Stream. Hendricks does a great job of bringing more than just cunning menace to her company woman, turning the role into an ambiguous spin doctor who also wants to change the dirty industry from the inside. As they square off, a growing number of hoodlums appear in between, all watched warily by Denise (Sarah Podemski), Jim’s loyal second-in-command. She’s a First Nation Canadian, balancing the town’s expanding footprint with protecting the local Reserve – and her father who lives there.
For all the engrossing drama that scenario entails, though, Tin Star is a crime drama that’s very fond of its crime, introducing us to such questionable types as the hot-headed Frank (Ian Pulseston-Davies) and guitar-playing Johnny (Stephen Walters). They’re all put on Jim’s tail by Stream Oil’s Head of Security. Called “The Quebecois”, he’s an ex-Special Forces guy with a fondness for talking in an unnervingly quiet voice and looking like a distant cousin of Ernst Stavro Blofeld. That’s the problem with the darker half of Tin Star: its bad guys are either generic or feel like Bond villains gone wrong.
Somewhere between the two stands Whitey, the young up-and-coming leader of a gang, who wants to rub out any evidence of his involvement in a murder but also has a soft spot for Jim’s daughter. Oliver Coopersmith is enjoyably nasty as the angel-faced brute, channeling Brighton Rock’s Pinky for all he’s worth – and he has complex chemistry with Abigail Lawrie as Anna, who is struggling to fit in with the community and welcomes the potential for a connection with someone.
The problem is that these two strands sometimes feel like they’re from different shows: the moving family tale of love, loss and life abroad, and the violent crime drama with the small-town crooks. One subplot involving Whitey and Anna and some nifty time-jump editing sums up where Tin Star ends up, as the stylish presentation feels garishly unsubtle, but hooks you nonetheless.
That’s partly due to the threat of killers hiding in plain sight among North Stream’s flood of unknown, anonymous workers, who all carry the potential for another spark of the devastation dropped by that cracking opening episode. But it’s mostly due to the cast, from Lawrie’s unhappy teen to Genevieve O’Reilly’s Angela, nervously selling homemade produce at the local fair. Roth, though, is undoubtedly the star of the show, and he’s superb, seizing the opportunity to veer from angry and straight-talking to funny and earnest, gradually going from the swaggering outsider, always asking for everything to be repeated “in English”, to the guilt-ridden shame of the town, trying to find closure, despite never being able to remember what he’s done the night before.
The result is a programme that, like its protagonist and distorted community, is split into two unequal fragments. But with Sky already renewing the show for a second season, there’s potential for those halves to tie together come the finale. For now, if you’re tuning in to see one of Britain’s best actors at the top of his game, Tin Star certainly earns its badge.
Tin Star Season 1 is available on-demand on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, for £7.99 a month – no contract. It is also available to watch on All 4 for free, with new episodes broadcast weekly on Sunday nights on Channel 4. Episode 1 is available until 19th February 2019.