Boxset Monday: Tin Star (UK: Sky Atlantic)

A revenge thriller that makes itself dizzy

Tin Star
Tim Roth in Sky Atlantic's Tin Star

In the UK: Thursdays, 8pm, Sky Atlantic

Since Sky Atlantic’s outset, it’s had two missions:

  1. To make you want to buy a Sky HD add-on, by showing you some beautiful locations and lots of pretty celebrities
  2. To mess around with genre, so you never know what you’re going to get

The first has been a feature of virtually every Sky drama, whether it’s been the Spanish-set Falcón, the Riviera-set Riviera or the Iceland-based Fortitude, all of which were beautiful to look at, not all of which were great drama.

The less obvious, genre-switching remit has been there from the outset, too. Why have a drama about a trans woman meeting her hitherto unsuspected pre-transition children and another about a contract killer when you can have both in the form of Hit and MissFortitude, of course, initially looked like a simple piece of Nordic Noir, with a murder on an isolated island, before ultimately becoming a piece of sci-fi horror about parasitic wasps from before the dawn of time.

Now we have Tin Star, a new Sky Atlantic show created by Rowan Joffe (The American, 28 Weeks Later) that sets out to fulfil both Sky Atlantic remits. It sees Tim Roth playing an ex-Met officer who emigrates to a small Canadian town with his family in order to give them a safer, better life. He’s also a recovering alcoholic and believes that without the stresses of London, his chances of a relapse are smaller, too.

However, an oil company wants to set up operations near the town and sends PR woman Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) and security officer Christopher Heyerdahl (Hell on Wheels) to persuade the townsfolk. The townsfolk could do with the cash, both from the company and the workers they’ll bring; Sheriff Roth points out that they’ll bring crime with them at levels the town might fight difficult to deal with.

A year later, all is as Roth predicted. And when he takes a stand, his house and family are attacked. Before you know it, there’s a family tragedy. Who did it? What will Roth do in response? Can he stay sober? Will he want revenge?

Indeed, Tin Star is billed as a revenge thriller. But who’s getting revenge on whom? And can Sky Atlantic do a straight revenge thriller, or is it all going to be something a whole lot weirder than that?

I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum after the jump, as I reviewed the entire first series. Enjoy this trailer first, though.

Jekyll & Hyde

How best then to describe a show that does its best to elude description? Probably the best thing is to take it in stages.

For the most part, Tin Star is a Jekyll & Hyde show. Usually that’s meant semi-metaphorically, but here, once Roth does fall off the wagon, he almost becomes a different person. It’s not quite Fight Club, but his alter ego has a name – ‘Jack Devlin’ (yep, he’s a little devil) – and he appears in mirrors to stare back at his sober Jekyll self. Jekyll Roth (aka Jim) gets blackouts when he becomes Devlin and can’t remember what he’s done, so Devlin even has to leave messages for Jim to pass on what he knows.

Devlin is a sociopath, scarily violent and prepared to do pretty much anything necessary to find out who killed his son. When Devlin’s on a roll, nothing can get in his way. But rather than something to be avoided at all costs, both Roth and his wife (Genevieve O’Reilly) actively seek out Devlin. Both want revenge, both know Jim isn’t the man to get it, so both do their best to ensure Jim is hammered most of the time. Whiskey pouring becomes almost ritualistic as they try to invoke their god of vengeance and it does take much to summon him from out the mirror.

So far, so typical, though. Think of the unstoppable Lee Marvin in Point Blank. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. Devlin is unreliable and may simply end up sleeping with the wrong woman and beating up a biker to get hold of some cocaine, rather than pursuing the mission. He’s also one man, not a superhuman, and he’s not even that great in a fight. So Tin Star is less a story of dogged pursuit of justice, more a meandering bar visit in which Roth hopes to lure out his would-be killers by sitting down and drinking a lot, before taking them by surprise.

It’s also a warning against handing loaded weapons to sociopaths – sure, Devlin might get the job done, but what happens if you want him to stop or one of Jim’s loved ones get in the way? Would Devlin kill them just to get to his target? Maybe…

Problematically, though, once all that is set up, the show largely forgets its own rules. Despite Roth being perpetually hammered as Jack, he’s still a great driver, even though he must be knocking them back while he’s driving. Blackouts stop happening, and Devlin and Jim start to become interchangeable. None of that is insurmountable, but it does make you wonder why the show bothered setting the rules up in the first place.

Comedy

Traditionally, revenge thrillers aren’t comedies, yet Tin Star is frequently funny, often broadly so – yes, it has its own Jekyll & Hyde routine. Although the first episode has its moments, it’s more or less what you’d expect from a revenge thriller. As of the second episode, though, the tone switches in often quite jarring ways. The people pursuing Roth aren’t Terminators, but they’re not exactly terrifying, particularly when they start dancing and taking part in open mic nights. They’re also quite good at banter.

Equally, Roth – particularly but not exclusively as Jim – has moments of hilarity, usually when he shakes up genre conventions. When a gang of bikers want to beat him up, Roth looks for a moment like he’s going to take them all on… then merely resignedly lies down on the pavement and curls up into a foetal ball, so he can minimise the damage from the kicking he’s going to take.

Even the fights can be funny. When Roth tries to kill someone in his car, a reclining seat comes to the rescue. Before you know it, the would-be murderer and his victim are sipping espressos together.

Then there’s Roth’s deputies (Ryan Kennedy and Sarah Podemski). They’re nice Canadians and unused to the level of violence that the town is seeing, particularly since most of it comes from their boss. It’s not quite Banshee – Canada, although the parallels are there, but frequently their reactions are sources of humour.

And lastly, there’s Heyderahl and his morning ablutions, about which, the less I say the better. Let’s just say you don’t expect a show to depict its Big Bad in quite that way.

Family

Roth’s family is all important in this, too. Marvin was a loner, but Roth has his family and the bad guys know it. Everyone knows it, making unrestricted revenge a dangerous policy. But O’Reilly is by no means helpless and she wants vengeance as much as Roth does. She’s also an Irish country girl who knows how to use a shotgun.

Equally important to the narrative is Roth and O’Reilly’s daughter, who has to deal with her own loss as well as watching the return of Devlin. She’s a typical teenager who hates her parents, but here she has good cause, particularly when she finds out the reason for the recent trauma.

Unnecessary

All that genre jumping and rule-breaking means that by the final episode, everything having been revealed, you’re not exactly sure what the point of the revenge plot was, except perhaps to show the pointlessness of revenge and how it simply begets more, leaving pretty much everyone dead or ostracised from one another by the end. It might even be a critique of the police (“I was a criminal, given licence to catch other criminals”), the big twist of the show being plucked from the headlines.

More so, you’ll have noticed that I’ve barely mentioned either Hendricks or Heyerdahl so far. That’s because they don’t have that much input into the main plot at all. Instead, there’s an almost completely unrelated sub-plot in which Hendricks investigates Heyderahl’s activities in a completely different town. They’re good actors, but it feels like they’re in Tin Star, purely so that their names can be on the promotional literature, rather than because they’re vital to the story.

Tin Star

Tin Star is a beautifully made, beautifully shot and directed TV series that messes with your idea of what a revenge thriller should be and shows that actions always have consequences. Roth is magnificently natural and funny, while also sometimes absolutely terrifying. If Tin Star does one thing, it confirms that he’s one of our greatest actors. It also has a superb soundtrack from Adrian Corker, who moves from the stirring strings of a Barrington Pheloung for the show’s HD-friendly location scenes through to the atonal composers of Brian Reitzell for when he wants to disconnect his audience from reality. It’s been renewed for a second season already, so its open ending will at least get a resolution of some sort and maybe Hendricks will get more to do next time.

However, Tin Star could have done with being shorter and leaner, and its constant playing with genre means that by the end, it’s almost dizzy from its constant turns and is unsure any more what it’s trying to say any more.

If you want to see Roth, some lovely Canadian scenery and have your genre assumptions challenged, Tin Star is definitely worth a watch. It’ll be a big investment of your time, some of which it wastes, but you will get at least some return on your investment. But if you want a clean narrative that does what it says on the tin, you should probably steer clear.