Steel Country, like many films at EIFF18, has a terminal case of poor pacing. It’s a film that starts slow, and continues slower – until picking up unnaturally fast and rushing implausibly to a rather silly conclusion.
Andrew Scott stars as Donny, a bin man in small-town Ohio who appears to have severe autism. Estranged from a one-time-fling which produced a child whom he rarely gets to see, he has a pretty hard life. When a local child goes missing and is found dead in the local river, Donny suspects something’s up. The child’s mother refuses to believe the police narrative that her son drowned accidentally on the creek and Donny, too, decides (without any evidence) that the police are lying, and begins a painfully obvious investigation of his own – pissing off the townspeople and police force with little subtlety, and opening himself up to danger.
For a period of time, it seems like Steel Country has found an interesting idea – that Donny’s (unlikely, and somewhat ridiculous) exploration of the case is leading others to suspect that he was the murderer. Indeed, this would be a pretty believable conceit, given his behaviour. Perhaps there’s even some room for commentary on society’s treatment of mental disability – do we automatically suspect somebody who acts in the way Donny does? Is it okay for us to do so? But nuance is not the order of the day. Steel Country is, instead, content to weave in plot-beats that get more and more ridiculous and melodramatic – chief among which is Donny, candidate for the most clueless man on earth, actually managing to get to the bottom of a fucking murder case on his own. That is, of course, just the tip of the crossbow-mounted arrow of silliness that awaits.
“Never go full retard” warned Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder and, unfortunately, Andrew Scott’s portrayal of Donny pitches headfirst into the absurd. Frustratingly mute, incomprehensibly dumb, and yet, around his daughter, seemingly completely normal, Donny is a tough presence to be around – and an unbelievable one. This is the second or third performance I’ve seen at EIFF that’s been critically praised despite seeming to be almost comically over-acted. If director Simon Fellows was aiming for any sort of seriousness or nuance, then it’s dubious that there are at least three laughs (probably more) at the expense of Donny’s disability in the script. Much as the exploitative kids in My Friend Dahmer used their ‘friend’s’ mental illness for comedy, Fellows crafts jokes out of his protagonist’s inability to cope with social situations that feel off in a film with an otherwise serious tone.
The film is definitely watchable, especially when it begins to pick up; Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography is crisp, clean, and elegant. Yet Steel Country remains fatally unoriginally. I often wonder, particularly at festivals, why somebody would want to dedicate a portion of their life, and likely a ton of money, to make a particular film. Steel Country is one of those. Why has Simon Fellows decided to expend so much effort to make this uninspiring crime thriller – alternately implausible and indistinguishable from every other small-town crime thriller at every other film festival in the world? Now that’s a mystery worth solving.