An oil company corrupting a small alpine town, British cops moving to Canada for the so-called quiet life, blackout alcoholism – this is some of the real-life grist that gives bloody crime drama Tin Star its authenticity.
Tim Roth plays Jim Worth, a former London Metropolitan detective, and recovering alcoholic, who emigrates with his family – wife Angela (Genevieve O’Reilly) daughter Anna (Abigail Lawrie) and son Petey (Rupert Turnbull) – to the Canadian Rockies to escape his dark past, taking up a post as police chief of the bucolic township of Little Big Bear.
But then a shocking tragedy befalls the family in the midst of the North Stream Oil company strong arming the town, and Jim’s past as violent drug and alcohol-addicted undercover detective comes back to haunt him.
Boom and bust
The seeds for creator Rowan Joffe’s (Brighton Rock, The American, 28 Weeks Later) “modern Western with bandits, a sheriff and assassins,” were sown when the writer/director came across an article about the corruption of the modest town of Fort McMurray in northeastern Alberta, Canada.
He says crime wasn’t much of an issue in Fort McMurray until the oil companies moved in, the boomtown becoming the centre for Canada’s lucrative tar sands oil industry early this century.
The influx of young, cashed up refinery workers into the town wanting to let their hair down while away from home, transformed the town, nicknamed Fort McMoney, into a den of debauchery overrun by organised crime. The Edmonton Journal even reported that cocaine was easier to come by than pizza.
“So suddenly the town is full of drugs, prostitution and gambling, and I was fascinated by that as the backdrop for a crime thriller,” says Joffe.
It’s a starkly different take on Canada to the majestic, pristine and very polite one we’re used to seeing.
“Canada has a reputation with many people for being morally upstanding but also a bit boring. But its oil industry is massive,” says Joffe.
The show is filmed in the quaint town of High River, 54km south of downtown Calgary, in the western Canadian province of Alberta, which boasts oil sands with the largest reserves of crude oil in the country. Canada is the fourth largest producer and fourth largest exporter of oil in the world according to Natural Resources Canada.
“It’s the source of an enormous amount of revenue and also an enormous amount of civil strife, because it means building pipelines through First Nations communities,” says Joffe. “So if you peel back the label on the Canadian maple syrup bottle and look at some of the things that are going on, it is absolutely right for a crime drama.”
Jekyll and Hyde
By rights, the credits for Tin Star should read, “Starring Tim Roth and Tim Roth etc etc.” The Reservoir Dogs star straddles the dual roles of the sober, law-abiding cop and family man Jim, and the alcoholic, charismatic aggressor Jack Devlin, the undercover alter ego that comes out when Jim falls off the wagon. It’s this shadow side that Jim draws on in his quest for revenge, and takes the story, says Joffe, to “dark, shocking places”.
The competing identities are more than a neat narrative device – it’s Joffe’s exploration of addiction.
“I am fascinated by addiction, in particular the idea of representing an alcoholic character not in ways they are conventionally seen on screen but instead like Jekyll and Hyde – someone who is one kind of man when sober and another when he drinks,” explains Joffe.
“When a true alcoholic drinks, something happens neurochemically, morally and emotionally – it completely transforms them as a person. I first became interested in this reading stories about real undercover cops, especially British ones – guys that were doing drug deals and getting addicted to the drugs they were dealing with, and how the personas they had created were partly fuelled by their heavy drinking and their addictions, which in time numbed their feelings of confusion and guilt.”
Jim also experienced alcohol-induced blackouts undercover so he, too, is piecing together his past as the story unfolds.
At a British Film Institute cast and crew panel for Tin Star earlier this year, Roth made the candid admission that he used his own struggles with alcohol, and those of his late father, to inform his portrayal.
“I drink too much, so there’s that element of it,” he said. “My Dad was an alcoholic, so there’s that element of it.”
The British cop moving to Canada for “the quieter life” isn’t just a quirky fish-out-of-water premise, it’s a well-worn rite of passage in real life.
“There are quite a few British cops out there, who we met for research,” Joffe told The Daily Mail. “Canada’s favourite country to recruit from is Britain, because we don’t carry guns and the Canadian ethos is to try and talk your way out of a situation without using a firearm.”
But for the Bobbies making the move, there are several inducements including better pay, a higher standard of living and, er… lower crime rates.
Yet, the culture clash, at least as it plays out in Tin Star, is about much more than cross-Atlantic jibes. As incoming police chief, Jim finds himself caught in the high tension of Little Big Bear between North Stream Oil and its flack, Vice President of Stakeholder Relations Elizabeth Bradshaw (Christina Hendricks, Mad Men), the townsfolk and the First Nations community.
The challenge for Joffe was how to accurately represent the First Nations people in the context of how they’d been treated by Canadian governments in the past.
“The challenge became how we could represent the First Nations communities in a way that we understand, showing that they are traumatised by what has been done to them over the past 100–150 years. So we came up with a storyline that we felt did that,” says Joffe.
To ensure the storyline’s veracity, the showrunner called upon Cree activist and cast member Michelle Thrush for advice.
“I shared the story with her in its early incarnation and received a lot of feedback on ways to make it truthful both to her community and her own experiences as a First Nations woman. I really hope that has come across in the story. It’s a crime drama, it’s a thriller, it’s not primarily a political piece or a racial piece, but all of those elements make for great characters. And great, truthful characters make for a much more compelling thriller.”
Binge the first season of Tin Star at SBS On Demand: