VOD film review: Steel Country
Matthew Turner | On 19, Apr 2019
Director: Simon Fellows
Cast: Andrew Scott, Bronagh Waugh, Denise Gough, Michael Rose, Christa Beth Campbell, Sandra Ellis Lafferty
Watch Steel Country online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Sky Store
Directed by British filmmaker Simon Fellows, this indie mystery thriller stars Andrew Scott (Sherlock, Fleabag) as Donnie Devlin, a 30-something on the autism spectrum who works as a garbage truck driver in small town Pennsylvania. Oblivious to the fact that his co-worker Donna (Bronagh Waugh) has a crush on him, Donnie lives with his elderly mother (Sandra Ellis Lafferty) and frequently visits his sweet 11-year-old daughter (Christa Beth Campbell), the result of a drunken one night stand with a local woman (Denise Gough), for whom he still harbours feelings that are decidedly unreciprocated.
When Donnie learns that a young boy drowned in the local river, he becomes obsessed with the idea that it wasn’t an accident, as the police are insisting. Undeterred, he doggedly begins his own investigation, but his somewhat clumsy lines of enquiry quickly land him in trouble, not least with Sheriff Mooney (Michael Rose), who warns Donnie off the case in no uncertain terms.
Scott’s performance is easily the most impressive element of the film. He nails the American accent and is entirely convincing throughout, retaining audience sympathy even when his behaviour takes an unexpectedly dark turn. The problem is that the script gives him no help, only vaguely referencing his condition and never explicitly stating it – consequently, the audience is left to work it out for themselves, from clues such as Donnie reciting all the Presidents (and their running mates) when nervous or tending to his meticulously arranged felt-tip pen collection. More to the point, its traits are frustratingly inconsistent and vary wildly, according to the demands of the plot.
Support-wise, there’s strong work from Christa Beth Campbell, who generates touching father-daughter chemistry with Scott, while Waugh and Gough (both also Irish, like Scott, so kudos is definitely due to the film’s accent coach) are excellent as the two women in Donnie’s life.
Fellows does a good job of establishing an oppressive small town atmosphere, and the sense that everyone is whispering behind closed doors. However, the film’s admirable state-of-the-nation intentions (as evidenced by all the Trump – Pence signs) don’t quite come off, largely because the script spends so little time with any of the other townsfolk. In addition, Fellows never quite finds the right tone. At one point, Donnie crosses a pretty serious line and the film barely even acknowledges it. Either way, the dramatic impact is lessened in such a way as to render it weirdly baffling rather than shocking.
Ultimately, the film can’t quite decide whether it wants to be a character study or a straightforward murder mystery, with the result that neither element really satisfies, as both are left frustratingly vague, with too many questions unanswered. Similarly, the unconvincing climax seems to come out of nowhere and smacks of test audience intervention.