American Rust — Jeff Daniels investigates a murder at a glacial pace

In Dan Futterman’s studiously dour drama, Jeff Daniels has the look of a man whose dog has died, whose house has been repossessed and who has stubbed his toe all in the same morning. Based on Philipp Meyer’s 2009 novel, the series is set in the fictional town of Buell, Pennsylvania, in America’s declining rustbelt. A defunct steel mill looms over the town where the skies are the colour of granite and no one has laughed since the 1990s.

Daniels plays Del Harris, the local police chief and an Iraq war veteran who we see in the opening shots crushing his prescription pills with a pestle and mortar and carefully measuring the powder in order to incrementally reduce his dose. This is what passes for detox in Buell, which is offered up as a microcosm of America’s opioid crisis — a subject also explored in the recent drama Dopesick and in Alex Gibney’s documentary The Crime of the Century.

At the centre of American Rust is a murder mystery. When the body of an ex-cop is found at the steel mill, Harris suspects the culprit to be Billy, a football ace who passed up the chance to turn his passion into a career. He is also the son of Maura Tierney’s seamstress, Grace, who works in a local sweatshop stitching beads on to wedding dresses. Harris is crazy about Grace, with whom he has occasional motel trysts, and so, with the murder inquiry, he finds himself in a tight spot.

On paper, this looks like a variation on Mare of Easttown, this year’s hit series also set in a depressed town and in which Kate Winslet, as the eponymous detective, provided a masterclass in weary exasperation. The performances here can’t be faulted, but where — in the midst of murder and deprivation — Mare of Easttown had an enjoyably spiky humour, American Rust is relentlessly, oppressively gloomy.

This would perhaps be less noticeable were it not for the absence of suspense. In the opening episodes, the murder investigation moves at a glacial pace, with the series more interested in basking in the existential despair of its emotionally battered characters. The victim, we learn, was a hopeless addict who recently skipped out on his family and stopped paying the bills. It’s no wonder the residents of Buell don’t seem too bothered about his violent demise, least of all his wife. But if they don’t care, why should we?


On Sky Atlantic and Now TV from November 28 and on Showtime in the US now

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