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And I said, "Hey, gunner man, that's quicksand. That's quicksand that ain't mud"
(AMERICAN RUST is streaming now on Paramount Plus. Three episodes viewed for review)
Streaming now on Paramount+, American Rust serves almost like a sister piece to this summer’s Mare of Easttown. Set on the opposite end of Rust Belt America, it tells the story of former glory days weighing down slowly crumbling people; some out to do good, others less so.
Jeff Daniels provides an ever-reliable lead as Del Harris, a morally justified crooked sheriff keeping his once prosperous, now ruined, town safe from itself. He’s the kind of modern western anti-hero, a shuffling titan with the weight of all past choices hanging so heavily on their shoulders that every step feels like a mile. Daniels is as good as ever, provoking both empathy and disgust as he makes the kind of choices only people in particular dead ends can make.
Supporting him is the stellar Maura Tierney, who finally gets decent material for her impressive talents. As Grace Poe, a single mother stuck mending hand-me-down wedding dresses, Tierney embodies Bruce Springsteen‘s haunting song “Glory Days” to perfection. It’s not hard to imagine her as a homecoming queen who never left town. When Tierney smiles, it’s like watching her youth fight against bitter decades of disappointment.
Harris loves Poe, who is still married to a man who comes and goes between women. Neither of them knows how to say how much the other means to them, so their days are filled with unfulfilled looks, meaningful gestures, and an endless frontier of what-ifs. Daniels and Tierney play beautifully off each other, each fighting their worse nature in the face of something better. When Poe’s son is implicated in a ghastly murder, Harris has to decide which direction he’ll follow. The rule of law, or the rule of love.
It’s compelling if traditional tragedy, made better by classy directing and the fascinating ruin of industrial working-class societies. Steel-string guitars strum in the background, factories are mausoleums, and distant mountains serve to keep those unfortunates who couldn’t escape trapped in their old lives. As a capsule of modern Americana, American Rust is a delicate, heartbreaking beauty.
Three episodes were screened for critics, and they’re immensely promising. Unfortunately, the drama is tremendously slow-burning, often to the point I found myself worrying it would burn out entirely. An extended flashback episode brings the entire series to a halt before it even begins, and there’s an odd sense the filmmakers are a little worried about letting audiences figure out these characters for themselves.
They shouldn’t worry, though. This is an impeccable cast, filled with acting greats like Bill Camp and Rob Yang, who bring texture and depth to the world. A lot of it is unspoken, but that kind of reserved yearning makes a Nordic soul sing. For fans who can’t get enough of murder mysteries in closed-off communities, American Rust is like a second feast all over again.
At just nine episodes, American Rust hopefully won’t overstay its welcome. But the hour-long episodes, thanks to deliberate pacing and structure, aren’t for everyone, and their heavy air of misery will wear down others. But for those willing to look into the darker places of working-class existence, it proves there are still compelling and touching stories to tell.