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‘American Rust’ Review: Showtime’s Murder-Mystery Is a Stark Portrait of Small-Town Living

Jeff Daniels' Pennsylvanian sheriff struggles to see a future for himself or the town around him in a bleak, throwback cop drama.

Jeff Daniels as Del Harris in AMERICAN RUST, "The Mill".  Photo credit: Dennis Mong/SHOWTIME.

Jeff Daniels in “American Rust”

Dennis Mong / Showtime

Near the end of the first episode of “American Rust” — Dan Futterman’s limited series adaptation of Philipp Meyer’s 2009 novel of the same name — Jeff Daniels’ local sheriff tries to explain why he’s gone to bat for a young man accused of assault. You see, Del Harris (an exquisite name for the lead in a modern-day western) is a veteran of the Gulf War, and during the last month of active combat, he was on guard duty when he spotted a man walking too close to the base’s fence. That man was carrying a satchel, which Del feared was a bomb or some other danger to the station he was tasked to protect, so the scared teenage soldier opened fire.

“Next morning, patrol goes out to take a look and there’s hardly anything left — just blood and shredded clothing,” he says. “And no satchel. Did someone come and take it? Maybe. Was it there in the first place?” Del trails off, not able to speak the answer he’s feared for some time. “But you’re under threat, and you start defending yourself, and you just keep on going — past the time the threat’s moved on,” he says. “Maybe that’s just what men do, I don’t know. But it’s definitely what young men do.”

“American Rust” is not an easy show to watch. While not as physically brutal as other premium cable dramas, the Showtime series is stacked with unsettling revelations like this one, involving characters who lost their way long before a murder upends their community. Through three episodes (all that were screened for critics), it’s difficult to say where things are headed, either thematically or story-wise, but a happy ending feels far removed from the desolate landscapes of Buell, Pennsylvania.

What can be gleaned is stark, sad, and a bit vexing. As a portrait of small town life in America — with populations dwindling as quickly as job opportunities, and with drug addiction rates climbing — it’s recognizable and austere. As an examination of people clinging to the lives they have, if not necessarily the place they love, it’s heartbreaking. And as an examination of what men do when their simple dreams are driven further and further out of reach, it may very well be damning; it’s too soon to say, really. Is Del’s monologue about young men a defense, meant to excuse violent behavior and encourage second chances? Or is it merely an explanation of how we got here; of the frustrated, frightened men who see their hometowns falling apart and don’t know what else to do but fight for them?

Bill Camp as Henry English in AMERICAN RUST, "Happy Returns". Photo credit: Dennis Mong/SHOWTIME.

Bill Camp in “American Rust”

Dennis Mong / Showtime

Either way, “American Rust” offers no clean-cut heroes in its early few hours. Aside from Del, the 12-minute “in media res” opening introduces a slew of locals barely hanging on. Bill Camp (who last co-starred with Daniels in Futterman’s Hulu limited series, “The Looming Tower”) plays a former steel mill worker who, if his plant hadn’t shut down, would still be out of a job because of a near-fatal accident that’s left him almost wholly reliant on his son, Isaac (David Alvarez). Mr. English, played by Camp with a nasty baseline demeanor, gives the impression that it’s not just one misfortune that’s made him so difficult to deal with. That feeling is soon echoed by Isaac, when he steals his dad’s money, abandons his care, and runs away from home. Soon, it’s up to his sister, Lee (Julia Mayorga), to leave her well-off married life in New York and return home to sort out her dad’s personal care.

Then there’s Grace Poe (Maura Tierney), a seamstress first seen sewing a wedding gown before rubbing the ache out of her overworked hands. She bums a few painkillers from a colleague on a smoke break, before spending her evenings numbing those nagging joints with a cold drink. Her son, Billy (Alex Neustaedter), helps when he can, but the college dropout has a hard time steering clear of trouble — a recurring issue that complicates a burgeoning relationship between his mother and the town lawman.

The pull between professional duty and personal interest is put to the test in “American Rust’s” mystery, when someone shows up dead and Del’s ensuing investigation starts tying together our story’s sordid and well-intentioned characters alike. There’s Grace’s no-good ex-husband, who likes to make passes at his son’s mother while his new partner is just a few seats away. There’s a blatantly racist former cop, kicked off the force after using up Del’s repeated encouragement to shape up. There’s also a kindly active officer, earnest friendships, and fresh suspects from a few towns over. But so far, at least, Showtime’s series isn’t emphasizing whodunit; it’s focused on what these folks have already done and what few options they have for what’s next.

Maura Tierney as Grace Poe in AMERICAN RUST, "The Mill". Photo credit: Dennis Mong/SHOWTIME.

Maura Tierney in “American Rust”

Dennis Mong / Showtime

Written well before the 2016 election and released what feels like a decade after, “American Rust” thankfully isn’t acting as a window into Trump’s America; Futterman’s scripts go out of their way to avoid political discourse in favor of practical, issue-based queries (even if they also dip into TROT territory — making a villain so enthusiastically bigoted that anyone not spouting racial epithets comes across clean). In one way or another, every character is trapped; some are reliant on medication, which they can only afford if they keep their job or the government protects their benefits; others are tied down by loyalty, whether it’s misplaced or foundational. Yet the town has clearly been passed over, with its creaking, ramshackle structures, homes being sold out from under their owners, and wide swaths of uninhabited space.

Futterman, the credited writer and showrunner, paints a painful juxtaposition: Buell is filled with natural life that promises possibility — the arching hillsides, quiet rivers, even the barren trees outside Del’s house, where he goes hunting whenever he damn well feels like it, can be seen as dormant rather than dead. But the businesses, the buildings, the bones set in place by its citizens — they’re cracking, if not fully broken down. After a lengthy downward trajectory that’s hastened by job loss and addiction and the recent murder, is this just a place where people die? Or might life return, if the remaining men could find a healthier path forward?

“American Rust” could stand to clarify its thoughts beyond authenticity, just as it could certainly seek answers with a little more urgency. But there’s something admirable about its measured, deliberate pace. Haste isn’t a part of small town life. There’s no need to hurry when there’s no place to go.

Grade: B-

“American Rust” premieres Sunday, September 12 at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime. The first episode is available to stream for free via YouTube.

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