By: Martin Carr
This small-town drama, which unfolds in the Pennsylvania rust belt region of America's Midwest, hinges on intimate relationships, which makes it a perfect fit for creator Dan Futterman. His creative credentials include two Oscar nominations for divergent character pieces in Capote and Foxcatcher, and that thorough focus on people is what you get in this slow-burn long-form series, which arrives on Sky Atlantic and NOW today (Sunday 28th November).
The drama is headlined by Hollywood veteran Jeff Daniels, who adds dimension and depth to beleaguered police chief Del Harris and provides the bedrock to a series which audiences may have trouble connecting with at first. He's burdened with the psychological scars of active duty, which manifest through regimented sedation and selective flashbacks. But despite that, Del is able to find solace in his job.
Elsewhere, television mainstay Maura Tierney, known for her roles in Your Honor, ER and The Good Wife, breathes life into Grace Poe. Family loyalties and romantic limitations dominate much of Grace's arc, with narrow-minded mentalities, petty opinions and a past which refuses to move on confronting her at every turn. Her son Billy, played by Alex Neustaedter, also shapes that narrative by providing essential conflict in a show which takes its sweet time. Other sub-plots encompass romantic infatuation, law enforcement favouritism and small-town employment politics, but those elements are never explored in an overt way, such is the approach that American Rust takes.
As a final piece of this Midwestern mosaic, industry stalwart Bill Camp heads up the English family as housebound patriarch Henry. Curmudgeonly, overbearing and incapacitated, he dominates through frustration at his lack of mobility, while relationships with his son Isaac and daughter Lee are coloured by personal tragedy and diminished through grief. But despite Henry's tendency to manipulate, coerce and rage against everyone, he is able to garner sympathy throughout, which says a lot about Camp's acting chops.
Each of those stand out performances are only made possible because of strong ensemble contributions elsewhere. David Alvarez and Julia Mayorga, alongside Neustaedter, offer that in spades, inhabiting these damaged and damaging people with the commitment the source material demands. Each episode brings its own individual sense of creeping dread as the town of Buell suffocates the inhabitants of this once prosperous industrial hub. For lifers such as Del, who are driven to do misguided things in search of happiness, there can be no salvation.
Behind the camera, director John Dahl shapes mood and imbues character with a darkness that underlines other thematic threads. He draws on his '90s film noir The Last Seduction by slowly drip-feeding plot in the first five episodes and unpacking personal peccadillos as wedding celebrations are intercut with a police investigation. In that moment, American Rust gathers momentum following its commitment to establishing both the place and its people, in turn bringing about a change that foreshadows troubles elsewhere.
A nod must also go to American Rust's aesthetic. Cinematographer John Grillo, himself a veteran of both HBO's Westworld and AMC's Preacher, paints this rust belt drama in dappled shades of burnished orange and corrosive copper. This homespun hue not only injects the town with an indefinable air of nostalgia, but allows Buell to seamlessly bridge the gap between past and present. Art director Halina Gebarowicz, who has worked on The Wire and Netflix's House of Cards, also succeeds in making Buell feel like a place that's lived in and has many a story to tell, capturing sweeping grasslands, decrepit industrial carcasses and the one remaining textile company left standing.
To an extent, Futterman has succeeded in drawing drama from the everyday. Like a Norman Rockwell painting made flesh, American Rust is unlikely to give up its secrets easily without audiences deciding to look more closely. These characters exist within the landscape and the drama comes from their interactions rather than anything that arrives from outside Buell. As a result, some may find this show drastically lacking in dramatic content. But for others, it will represent an essential change of pace.
American Rust is not looking to please everyone, but for those willing to go the distance, there is a compelling story there to be enjoyed.