Steel Country Review
A Dark Place (2018) | Dir. Simon Fellows | Cast: Andrew Scott, Bronagh Waugh, Catherine Dyer, Denise Gough | Writer: Brendan Higgins
After a star-making turn in the Sherlock TV series, notable roles in Pride and Spectre, becoming a regular in the recently finished Fleabag and receiving countless acclaim for his theatrical work, you would’ve imagined Andrew Scott’s considerable talent would be recognised on an even larger stage.Steel Country (known as A Dark Place in other territories) is set-up as part character study, part murder-mystery, in a thriller that never fully comes alive but gets by thanks to Scott’s thoughtful performance.
In a story that encompasses murder, abuse of power, mental illness and child abuse, Scott stars as Donnie Devlin, a garbage truck driver working in the small town of Harburgh, Pennsylvania. It’s never made explicitly clear what kind of condition he has (you presume it to be some form of autism) but we do know he has a daughter called Wendy (Christa Beth Campbell) who he regularly visits, while also looking after his ageing mother Betty (Sandra Ellis Lafferty).
Scott is a smart enough actor to avoid the awkward tropes that too many actors rely on when depicting a character on the spectrum. Donnie isn’t the typical naïve soul with a kind heart that everyone takes advantage of. He’s aware of how others perceive him and the ‘relationship’ with the mother of his child, Linda (Denise Gough), is a little too one-sided for comfort. At heart, Donnie is a good guy, which is what leads him to uncover a sordid and unsavoury town secret, but he can also be short tempered and rude to those close to him.
When a 6-year-old boy is found drowned in a nearby lake, Donnie appoints himself as a private investigator of sorts after taking a seemingly innocuous comment from the boy’s mother to heart. The more questions he starts to ask, the sterner the warnings become from local forces who want him to leave the matter alone. Quite a few liberties are taken to get us from point A to B at the film’s conclusion, and without Scott’s compassionate performance and solid support around him, the plot holes and contrivances would be a lot harder to sideline.
Scott’s presence also compensates for Brendan Higgins’ shallow script that seems to ready itself to tackle some weighty themes but never gets beyond surface level. The film's setting was once a steel-producing town and as the rundown business outlets and Trump/Pence picket signs show, prime Republican territory. The story perhaps works as a metaphor for the abuse of power and moral corruption being driven from Washington, but it never solidly connects. Likewise, Donnie’s mental health issues and the darker elements of the narrative are largely left unexplored.
Simon Fellows' unfussy direction suits the story being told and along with DoP Marcel Zyskind they recreate the texture you'd expect in a town where everyone is a little too familiar with their neighbour's business and career choices are slim after graduation. It's a competently made film that retains your attention for the 85-minute runtime, but you are left to only imagine how good it could've been fuelled by better material.
Steel Country opens in UK cinemas and on digital on April 19th.