In Amazon’s new thriller series Tin Star, Tim Roth plays Jim Worth, a British detective who’s relocated his family to a quiet Canadian town in search of a simpler life. Jim is a recovering alcoholic, and there’s a sense early on that he’s left some very dark times in his rearview mirror. Unfortunately, his new job as police chief soon puts him at odds with both the company behind a new oil refinery setting up camp in the town and elements of organized crime. That puts Jim and his family in the crosshairs both literally and metaphorically, and a tragic event soon leaves one person dead and the surviving three reeling.
Tin Star opens with an intense sequence where Worth and his family, obviously on the run from somebody or something, rush to refill their gas tank at an out-of-the-way filling station. Series creator Rowan Joffe wrote and directed the first episode, and I can’t say enough about how well he stages this opening sequence. Rarely before has the sound of a squeaking metal sign been used to more nail-biting effect. Joffe throws us into the deep end and teases a truly horrific event without providing context or closure, then snaps viewers back into the past to see how we got here. It’s a narrative structure that many have used before, but it works particularly well here, largely because of how effective that opening is. By the time we see it all play out again, and the missing pieces are locked into place, it’s a gut-punch that’s almost too difficult to watch.
From there, Tin Star unfolds as both a revenge thriller and a chronicle of a family struggling to hold itself together as grief and guilt pull from all sides. Naturally, a big part of this is Worth’s fight to keep himself on the wagon. Even before he inevitably begins to slip, Tin Star foreshadows the fact that very bad things will happen when he does. During his interviews about the show, Roth described his character’s alcoholism as a sort of “Jekyll and Hyde” scenario, and they definitely take that ball and run with it. There’s a recurring visual motif where Worth faces a dark mirror image of himself, something you’d expect more from a horror movie than a cop thriller. It’s a little too on the nose, but Roth’s performance is so good, it works a lot better than it should.
And Roth’s performance is the primary draw here. The rest of the cast, including Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks as a suit representing the oil company, all do good work, but this is Roth’s ballgame. In any given episode, he’s peeling back multiple layers of Worth, from the family man desperate to protect the family he has left, to the alcoholic who just wants to give in and slip inside a bottle, to the post-traumatic victim on the edge of a breakdown. And always, there’s that dark side, just waiting to be let out. And given the nature of the inciting crime, you’ll be eager to see that dark side unleashed on the people responsible, even though it will inevitably rain collateral damage down on Worth and the people he loves.
Amazon only made the first five of Tin Star’s 10 episodes available for review, but there’s enough in the opening batch to keep us watching. The screened episodes do have some pacing issues, which is strange given how effective the show can be at ratcheting up the tension when it’s working well. Part of the problem is that the villains are never as effective as the show clearly wants them to be, with one actor in particular aiming for the whole “fresh-faced psycho” thing but not entirely pulling it off. Part of that may just be because he’s working in the shadow of Roth, who can make most people look amateurish.
The show also earns kudos for being willing to experiment. This type of story has been told plenty of times before, but Tin Star proves more than willing to take chances. A standout episode unfolds completely out of order, with Worth recovering from a blackout and trying to piece together what happened the night before, even as he’s having to deal with a potentially dire situation involving another missing family member. Roth teased in interviews that one of the episodes was heavily improvised, and I have a strong suspicion that it was this one. There’s a rawness to it, and it would make sense given that Roth’s character is constantly reacting to events he doesn’t remember.
Cop shows are a dime a dozen and they’ll still owe you change. Thankfully, Tin Star stands out thanks to a bang-up lead performance and some unforgettable, intense sequences. Here’s hoping the season wraps up as strongly as it comes out the gate.