Tyrannosaur opens with the sight of vicious bastard Joseph (Peter Mullan) killing his dog in a fit of spastic kicking rage, an act of cruelty so horrible that actor Paddy Considine’s film immediately telegraphs its forthcoming nowhere-to-go-but-up trajectory. Men are monsters, albeit ones with the potential for redemption, in this measured, mechanical portrait of Joseph, whose slow moral awakening comes via an unlikely relationship with thrift-store proprietor Hannah (Olivia Colman), whom Joseph—after attacking a gang of young bar patrons—ruthlessly berates during their opening meeting, condemning her (without any justification) for being a content middle-class idiot whose barren womb is a source of shame. The type of unshaven, glowering Travis Bickle type (he even jokingly refers to himself as “Robert De Niro” at one point) who sits in a bar’s corner booth ranting and raving to himself, Joseph is such a cartoon creep that Hannah’s kindness to him immediately reeks of screenwriter contrivance. That feeling is merely enforced (rather than dispelled) by the eventual revelation that Hannah’s comfort around psychos isn’t something new, since she’s married to a lunatic named James (Eddie Marsan) who makes his maiden entrance by pissing all over his wife while she pretends, out of terror, to be asleep.
Like another actor’s maiden effort behind the camera, Gary Oldman’s 1997 Nil By Mouth, Tyrannosaur offers up a kitchen-sink vision of suburban England in which women and children cower at the feet of masculine fury. Considine’s script leaves no male untainted by violence, including Joseph’s dying friend, who on his death bed laments having done very “bad things”; his pub mate Tommy (Ned Dennehy), who espouses a desire to go all “Ku Klux Klan” on local Pakistani shop keepers; and the boyfriend of his across-the-street neighbor, who bullies his girlfriend’s young son Samuel (Samuel Bottomley) with his pit bull. A brutal, godless bunch these men are, and their nastiness is juxtaposed with Hannah’s quiet faith in God, a dynamic that’s integral to Tyrannosaur’s creaky uplift-after-horror designs. Surly and malicious in spite of himself and Hannah’s continued kindness, Joseph eventually begins to locate his humanity once he finds Hannah sporting a black eye courtesy of James, whose character—operating according to cliché—immediately suspects that his demure, plain-Jane wife is whoring herself around town, especially with James, and takes it out on her with his fists, only to contritely plead for forgiveness shortly thereafter.
Despite a few token gestures, most notably a cutaway from the threatening sight of James’s hand on Hannah’s face to Joseph sledgehammering his shed, Considine’s direction, full of long takes and ominously patient rhythms, allows the focus to remain on his actors. It’s a shrewd approach, since Mullan’s wrath feels authentically unhinged and Colman exudes soulful hopelessness and misery, especially during a close-up of her verbally consoling her husband, his head in her lap, with a mixture of dread and desperation in her eyes, and a subsequent shot of her weeping in her shop’s backroom, and then begrudgingly feigning cheeriness (and lying about her black eye) when forced to the counter. Tyrannosaur, however, never convincingly justifies its pessimistic gender-warfare worldview, its working-class miserablism proving too conventional and wannabe-shocking to register as authentic. Consequently, its third-act turn toward salvation—achieved through sacrifice, confronting inner demons, and taking responsibility for one’s own actions—rings false, particularly once Considine disingenuously turns Joseph’s ire into a force of righteous good. Aside from Joseph’s speech explaining the title (a generally awful trope that’s welcome here simply because the preceding, first mention of the nickname “Tyrannosaur” leaves one baffled about its true meaning), obviousness ultimately cripples Considine’s bleak beauty-and-the-beast treatise.
Tyrannosaur will play on March 30 and 31 as part of this year’s New Directors/New Films.