A sanitation worker becomes obsessed with uncovering the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of a young boy in Simon Fellows’ Steel Country.
There are parts of America that have all but been forgotten about by those in power. These areas were once the centre of industry but have fallen into a state of dilapidation as more things are imported than built within the borders of the United States. The setting of this film is just such a place with the decay of the community almost serving as a character in itself. Everything has a sense of unpleasantness about it as the citizens of this forgotten town do what they can to make ends meet when they have no real prospects to lift them out of the life that has been forced on them. It’s highly topical and clearly meant to invite comparisons to to present day events.
It all sounds fairly bleak and it certainly is though it’s important for this film to establish how unpleasant life is for people in this situation. The money has gone, jobs are scarce and the people are immensely frustrated to the point of desperation. The protagonist is Donny (Andrew Scott); a sanitation truck driver who is trying to make his way in the world by earning an honest living so that he can help give his daughter a good life. It’s never explicitly stated but Donny appears to be on the autism spectrum which means that his outlook on the world could be seen as somewhat skewed. People tend to be uncomfortable around him and minimise their interactions as much as possible. Framing a story around a character like Donny was a really nice touch as it allows the film to explore a less traditional point of view when it comes to telling its story.
Donny becomes obsessed with finding the truth behind the death of a young boy who apparently wandered off and drowned accidentally. His obsession entirely comes from remembering that the boy used to wave at him as he drove around for his job. Once again it’s never explicitly stated but it would appear that simple gestures of human kindness such as a wave to acknowledge his existence aren’t extended to Donny very often so he puts a lot of stock in them when they do come his way. Further investigation of the incident makes him suspicious and this suspicion only grows the more digging he does.
The town itself seems to work against him the more he learns with attempts on his life, some really on the nose prodding from local Sheriff, Mooney (Michael Rose) and general discouragement from nearly everyone he comes into contact with. On some level it’s unsettling to see Donny so obsessed with solving a case that has nothing to do with him but on another level it’s inspiring to see someone so driven to do the right thing that he’s willing to lose himself to it. It speaks to a larger theme around the voices that people have in the world. Donny doesn’t have a very loud one but he’s willing to use it to find justice for others where the rest of the town largely turns a blind eye to the obvious corruption.
Donny’s investigation carries the film fairly well with enough surprises, reveals and misdirection thrown at the audience to keep things interesting. It progresses and adds up in ways that make sense with much of the plot being character driven. Things happen because of who Donny is and how he applies the knowledge that he gains rather than progression being plot driven. It makes a big difference as it’s so much easier to invest in the conflict this way.
Andrew Scott is great as Donny. He’s a really engaging sympathetic protagonist with enough layers to keep him interesting. The performance feels real in the sense that there are scenes where Donny comes across as deliberately unsettling in a way that benefits the film. In many ways the film challenges the viewer to root for him and Andrew Scott does a lot of the heavy lifting to make this a character worth believing him. Some of the most effective moments come from a really raw portrayal of a profound lack of understanding. Donny creates a lot of the conflict himself because he doesn’t understand how people work and the script as well as the performance makes great use of this conceit.
He does have one nearly unwavering supporter in the form of his co-worker played by Bronagh Waugh who backs him up more than anyone else does. She clearly understands him more than anyone else does because she works so closely with him and starts to recognise that he’s onto something. Her performance brings across friendship and respect but also exasperation when he refuses to back down which quickly creates a well realised connection between the two of them that could definitely have had more attention. What appears on screen is strong enough as is but there was a lot more potential than the film allows to be explored.
The only major drawback this film has is its ending. Everything leading up to this was tense, bleak and interesting but the experience devolves into something that feels like a huge departure from everything that happened beforehand. Ultimately the conclusion feels rushed and at odds with the strong work put into establishing something both compelling and real.
A compelling character driven story from the point of view of a protagonist with a less than traditional outlook. Donny’s obsession with solving a case that doesn’t quite add up is a really strong plot that allows for fascinating exploration of a community that has been all but forgotten by those in power. Donny is a man driven to do the right thing for very simple reasons and chooses to use his limited influence to find justice for those who can’t do it themselves. It’s both inspiring and unsettling depending on how audiences choose to see his actions. He’s a great character wonderfully played by Andrew Scott who helps add so many layers to his character and carries the film nicely. Unfortunately the ending leaves a lot to be desired as it feels at odds with what leads up to it.
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