American Rust opens with a quick intro to some of the main characters. Sheriff Del Harris (Jeff Daniels) is carefully crushing and weighing out drugs. Grace Poe (Maura Tierney) massages her hands after sewing beads onto a dress. Billy Poe (Alex Neustaedter) sits on his porch with a beer, while Isaac English (David Alvarez) helps his father, Henry English (Bill Camp), into a chair and receives a gruff “go away” for his efforts.
Drugs and stimulants, prescription or otherwise, seem commonplace. On a break outside the factory, Grace crunches some medication.
“I like the taste. It reminds me I’m alive.”
Shortly after encouraging his father to take a sleeping tablet, Isaac steals a pile of cash and leaves the house with a backpack, and his SAT result taped to his leg. He asks an unenthusiastic Billy Poe to leave town, reminding him his probation ends tonight.
As they walk past an abandoned steel mill, Billy spots the police officer involved in his arrest six months earlier. Billy heads towards the mill to talk to him, telling Isaac to wait for him. A few seconds later, Isaac follows.
Del Harris, who’s watching Grace, receives a call from the PD about a possible body at the mill. It’s his day off, but he goes to investigate anyway, after a brief conversation with Officer Steve Park (Rob Yang) that suggests Del does not like to follow the rules he enforces.
Steve: You hunting out of season again?
Del: Not answering that question. But to be clear, there are no seasons on my property. Nobody tells me what to do on my own land. I’m a good shot. I’m not gonna kill anybody. And if I did, they’d be on my property.
Steve: I’m going to forget we had this conversation.
Del: Don’t forget all of it. Don’t go taking a sunset stroll on my land. Especially not in a deer costume.
Steve: Copy that.
We have to wait a little longer to find out what Del finds in the mill.
Six months earlier
Billy loads the trunk of his mom’s car — their home, which Grace says she hates, is being sold today. After Grace drives away, she stops suddenly at a house where a red truck is parked, knocks impatiently, then kicks the door open.
Inside the bedroom, we meet Grace’s husband Virgil Poe (Mark Pellegrino). Virgil tries to charm his way out of trouble, but Grace just wants him to do something useful for once in his life.
Virgil, wearing boxers and boots, runs out after Grace and suggests breakfast while the woman Virgil spent the night with awkwardly tells him she was going to make them some dippy eggs. Classy move, Virgil.
As Billy helps to coach the football team (his life seems to have changed a lot in the last six months), Henry English tells Isaac his sister Lee (Julia Mayorga) married her rich boyfriend. The news hits Isaac hard — Lee’s not coming back now, and he’s stuck looking after their dad.
Grace wants to crash at a coworker’s place.
Grace: Well, I have acquired some wisdom in all of this.
Beth: Oh, yeah?
Grace: Yeah. Don’t marry a douchebag.
Beth: At least you found a cute douchebag. It must’ve been fun for a while.
Grace: Cute don’t pay the mortgage.
Officers Harris and Park are keeping the peace at the auction. This mainly involves watching passively and a little sarcasm.
“Thank you for protecting us while we steal your neighbours’ shit.”
Several trucks show up. One of them is the red truck from earlier. Virgil has brought his friends, Arlo and Dennis, to crash the auction. He’s doing something useful — waiting quietly by the truck while his friend points him out to potential buyers.
Nobody buys Grace’s home — go figure! To really make the auctioneer’s day, Del tells Steve to escort him to the town line. For his own safety, of course. At this point, we’re really getting a feel for how things work in this town.
Weighed down with doubts about Billy’s friendship and seeing the life he wanted slipping further away from him after his sister’s marriage, Isaac walks out onto the frozen river his mother died in four years earlier — and falls through the ice.
Del Harris picks up a bottle of sparkling wine to celebrate with Grace. After checking Virgil isn’t around — he hasn’t been for a year — Del tells Grace of Virgil’s involvement in the failed house sale.
Grace: Thanks for not running ’em off.
Del: They weren’t doing anything illegal. Not technically, at least.
Grace doesn’t mind that Del didn’t bring champagne (he does), but she isn’t happy when he gets called away to an incident at a bar just as their party is getting started.
Billy, who was at the bar, is being held down by a police officer after a fight that someone else started and he finished.
Del shows up, fires the police officer, Pete, who’s drunk and waving his gun around, and arrests Billy — something Grace isn’t happy about when she finds out later.
Did Del arrest Billy last night? Did he leave my fucking home to go arrest my son? Billy’s a good kid. He has an asshole for a father, but he has a good heart, and somebody’s got to help him out. Okay?
Del speaks up for Billy, but Virgil is the one supporting Grace on the day of the trial, and he makes sure his rival sees.
Virgil and Grace are in good spirits after the trial. Virgil’s joyful dance is an absolute delight to watch, and he and Grace seem to be having fun.
The fun stops when Del shows up with champagne, wanting to cook dinner for Grace. The conversation is awkward as she does her best to get rid of Del without telling him Virgil is there.
Del backs off, but not before making it clear who helped their son avoid jail time.
Six months later
Del finds Pete Novick’s body — and a football jacket that he recognises and hides before the other officers arrive. That’s not good.
And we’re done — that’s the end of episode one!
A lot happened in this episode. I love how quickly we get a feel for the main characters and the politics of the town. Isaac and Billy seem unlikely friends at first, but their friendship starts to make sense by the end of the episode. Grace seems to be a strong and admirable character who’s doing the best she can (and Maura Tierney is excellent). Del Harris is something of contradiction, a law enforcement officer who seems to be living to a different set of moral values than the ones he’s promised to uphold. I don’t like that inconsistency, but I’m curious to see where his story goes!
Virgil is a bit of a reprobate (he thoroughly deserved that slap from Grace) but he’s attractive, playful and charming, and he brightens every scene he’s in. He seems quite different to the other characters, which might be why Virgil appears to get away with his philandering — in a town like that, being around someone like Virgil might be better than a dopamine boost. I hope we learn enough about his backstory to understand what’s driving his behaviour; is it just a different way of coping with life in a town like Buell?
The storytelling is engaging. There’s a clever, jaded humour that works well, particularly from Grace and Del, and that’s a good contrast with the lighter mood that Virgil brings. I love how the story has been transferred from novel to screen, particularly as there’s plenty of space to appreciate some excellent writing as a lot of the story is told visually. The lighting and colours in many of the scenes are quite gloomy, but the filming is beautiful and atmospheric, and the darkness suits the town and the story.
What did you think?