Add Steel City to the list of recent brilliant independent American films that have been ignored by the Academy and at the box office. Made for a mere $350,000, this debut feature film by writer-director Brian Jun is a finely-crafted, authentic and meaningful examination of manhood in contemporary blue-collar America.
P.J. Lee (Tom Guiry), a young man of maybe twenty, is trying to find his way. His father is in jail charged with vehicular homicide. His father's house where he'd been living is going into foreclosure. He works a dead-end restaurant job that won't pay for rent or seemingly even enough to keep his truck running. There's no room at his stepfather's for him. His brother is going through his own mess with a newborn and a wife he's two-timing. P.J. has a girl that seems to care about him, but he's wary about trying to live up to a commitment. Finally, there's a bigger cloud hanging over him that only comes into clear view as the film progresses.
Despite the numerous circumstances working against P.J., Steel City is a hopeful movie about men looking to fix things. P.J.'s incarcerated father Carl Lee (John Heard) is trying in his own way to make amends for not being there for his sons when they were growing up. Carl's brother, Vic (Raymond J. Barry), a Vietnam vet with no family of his own and who's been estranged from Carl for years over a woman, tries to step in and makes amends by guiding P.J. Even P.J.'s brother Ben (Clayne Crawford) who simultaneously blames his father and repeats his father's mistakes, is struggling with trying to be something better.
The acting in Steel City is universally excellent, and the dialouge is pitch perfect. Taken together it creates the illusion that these are real men who are actually working through real problems.
Steel City was filmed in southern Illinois, principally in Jun's hometown of Alton. Director of photography Ryan Samul did an impressive job using the bleak backdrop of this rundown mill town to perfect effect in this blue-collar melodrama. Filmed in 35mm and Super 16, Steel City looks like a much more expensive film than it is. Jun and Samul choose to emphasize the blues and grays in the outdoor shots. Although this adds an artistic sheen to the film, it takes away a bit for its realism.
The score and soundtrack are also top notch, and a great coup for such an inexpensively-made film. A moody, minimalistic score by Mark Geary aptly complements Samul's cinematography. Geary also adds a song to the soundtrack, but the bulk of the soundtrack is carried by Missouri singer/songwriter Jeff Black using songs from the album Honey and Salt. Black's songs are reminiscent of the work of Bruce Springsteen.
While, for most viewers, the revelation that comes out midway through the film will not be nearly as surprising as Jun hoped for, Steel City still aptly succeeds. This is the kind of story that plays very well in short-form fiction but rarely translates to the big screen. Jun's done a marvelous job. Here's hoping that he's able to build on this impressive debut.
Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, and enhanced for widescreen, Steel City looks excellent with beautiful colors and deep grain.
The main feature is available in 2.0 and 5.1 Dolby Digital, or with a Spanish mono dub. The 5.1 mix sounds great with good use of all channels. There are no subtitles available on this release.
This release is well-packed with extras. First up is a student film made by Brian Jun entitled For Jimmy Brown (12 min.) about a friendship struck up in an extended care facility between a elderly man and a young man with a rapidly-debilitating illness. This short shows promise, but doesn't amount to much on its own. There are also a number of deleted scenes (11:28) which were rightly cut as unnecessary fat. Also included are a photo gallery and the theatrical trailer. The best extras though are the two commentary tracks. The first one includes filmmaker Brian Jun and actors John Heard and Clayne Crawford. The second includes Jun and director of photography Ryan Samul. Together the two commentaries provide a great deal of background on the making of Steel City and will be of interest to anyone interested in independent filmmaking on a shoestring budget.
Steel City doesn't end with everything being put right, but it does end in a better place than it began for most of its characters, and it feels honest and hopeful. Steel City is highly recommended.