Set in Western Pennsylvania, Simon Fellows’ crime thriller Steel Country is a painfully accurate portrait of modern society, and marks Andrew Scott’s best performance to date.
Directed by Simon Fellows (God the Father) and produced by Gareth Unwin (The King’s Speech), Steel Country is a hard film to categorise. It’s a crime thriller, as it revolves around the mysterious death of a young boy, but it’s also about revenge, as it’s its compelling protagonist, sanitation truck driver Donald Devlin (Andrew Scott, of Sherlock and Fleabag), who leads the investigation, ultimately becoming fixated on proving that the boy has been murdered. But Donny, his family, and his work colleague Dana’s (Bronagh Waugh, best known for playing Sally Ann Spector on The Fall) investigation on Tyler Zeigler’s (Nolan Cook, of Murder Calls) disappearance is not the only key point of the film: what differentiates Steel Country from your typical detective story is that it deals with several timely themes at once, resulting in a film that is, at the same time, clever, perfectly thought-out, and surprisingly unpredictable.
It is no coincidence, in fact, that the action takes place in a US town in the middle of nowhere, where nothing really happens and whose inhabitants almost seem to be stuck in time, unable to move, feel or express anything. The setting is a character of its own in Fellows’ story, acting as a constant reminder of everything that’s wrong with our society in this specific moment of time. As Donny investigates corruption and police cover-ups, a series of more profound questions about the state of things is raised by the violent place he lives in.
But the most important element of Steel Country, and the one that really makes it stand out, is Donny’s autism. It’s not easy to portray mental illness on screen without slipping into stereotype, and it’s even more difficult to do so when the character in question is dealing with a murder investigation. But leave it to Andrew Scott to develop a character that steals every single scene he’s in, and whose delicate nuances are shown with such honesty and passion that at times you almost forget he’s not a real person standing right in front of you.
Donny’s vulnerability is also his strength, and his innocence is what makes him the perfect hero for this story. Not only can we relate to him, as we see him being constantly pushed around and bullied by the people around him, with no “shield” to protect him from the world, but we wish we had his courage. Danny is brave enough to ask the questions nobody else would ask, and, while his obsession with Tyler’s death might have originated from his mental illness, his need to look for the truth is much deeper and much more personal. His character gives us the most moving, self-aware and heartbreaking moments in the film, which also happen to be the most realistic ones. He also gives us a controversial ending that many will either hate or not understand, but that I personally thought was pure genius, and the only possible way it could have ended.
Steel Country is about solving a crime, but it’s also about overcoming fear. It will speak to you and it will stay with you for a very long time after you’ve seen it. Because it’s ultimately about facing reality, accepting it and doing something about it: after all, what could be more important today?
Steel Country had its World Premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival on 25 June 2018 and is now available to watch on digital and on demand.