John Heard has toted up so many years playing sleazebags — he was great as a desperate corrupt cop on The Sopranos — that most people probably don’t even remember how he started, back in ’70s whimsies like Chilly Scenes of Winter, where he specialized in playing sweetly confused sensitive guys. Even in his middle-aged rotter phase, Heard has had a quality of buried innocence, and in Brian Jun’s quietly absorbing and incisive Steel City, that quality shines through his performance as the steel-town father of two troubled young men — brothers in torment — who has been tossed into the slammer pending a charge of vehicular homicide. (We know that there was a car accident; what we don’t learn until later are the telling details.) Even at his most still, Heard is a master at letting you read his wounds.
So is everyone in Steel City. It’s a drama in which even the most minor character registers as a full, complicated presence — a person who deserves his or her own movie. Thomas Guiry, as Heard’s guilt-stricken younger son, is like Ryan Gosling with less moody Method fuss, and America Ferrera, as the girl he falls for, reminds you what a delicate actress she was before she cartoonified herself on Ugly Betty. Raymond J. Barry, another ’70s vet, plays Heard’s sinewy, battle-scarred loner brother with a kind of tensely private coded force. Steel City could have used more rhythmic drive, but if Jun keeps weaving together characters this compelling, he could be a major film artist in the making. B+