England feels like a miserable place. The air looks stale and grim, the people are obnoxious, the beer is warm, and the houses seem more like sterile articles of manufacturing than places occupied by warmth or love. At least it’s hard to walk away from Tyrannosaur, Paddy Considine’s feature debut, thinking otherwise.
Tyrannosaur is the follow-up to Considine’s short Dog Altogether, in which Joseph (Peter Mullan), an old, broken man, either administers or encounters several moments of violence before taking refuge in the charity shop of a kindhearted Christian woman named Hannah (Olivia Colman). Tyrannosaur takes a similar route, condensing and incorporating the short. The film opens with the first of a seemingly endless series of brutal moments, with Joseph kicking his dog until it dies. It’s as hard to watch as you would imagine, an overture as effective as it needs to be for what follows. Joseph is at war all the time, provoking and enduring clashes with everyone he crosses; Selby couldn’t have written him better. He’s inscrutable on purpose in the film’s first act, and throughout Mullan nails every moment, attacking and withdrawing, musing and combusting.
After he finds his way into the charity shop, Joseph tries to form a friendship with Hannah, but he can’t help lashing out at her upscale lifestyle and her faith. He goes on a tirade against God that’s pretty unnuanced but still manages to shake Hannah deeply. Soon after, we learn that Hannah, despite her kindness, happens to endure freakish, horrifying abuse from her husband on an almost nightly basis. Before we even see his face, we see James (Eddie Marsan) piss on his sleeping wife — and it only gets worse.
Considine piles brutality on top of itself in a way that’s hard to earn, succeeding primarily on the backs of his two leads’ performances. As they grow closer — to the point of causing James to assume they’re having an affair — they get to know what kind of darknesses have grown within each other. Joseph asks Hannah to pray for his dying friend, a moment where we learn that Joseph, a widower, has a history of abuse himself. Softness develops, and Hannah flees her husband and takes refuge on Joseph’s couch. The transformation the two make is gradual and unstable, and watching Colman and Mullan pull off such an unsure, slowly developing levity is exhilarating. The scene that cinches it is a wake for Joseph’s friend, a scene bereft of dialogue, merry and mesmerizing and unafraid of brushing up against cloying.
One of Considine’s understated gifts is humor, and though he employs it sparingly, its occasional use is jarring and clever. Joseph, when first asked for his name, says “Robert DeNiro,” and the film’s title is indeed from a prolonged aside about Jurassic Park, comic touches that don’t bring any relief but at least briefly deflate the ruthlessness. If you’ve seen Chris Morris’ Considine-starring, BAFTA-winning short My Wrongs #8425-8249 & 117 (… and who hasn’t?), you’ll understand the dark headspace in which Considine is comfortable working, as well as how he’s able to glean humor from even the grimmest psyche. (He’s also well known for being perhaps the best part of Hot Fuzz.) Considine’s skills directing outpace those of his acting, and his gift for letting the camera linger, for sculpting shots and mining a palette thick with grays and browns, reveals a director capable of dredging something important from the human swamp.
The underlying goal of Tyrannosaur is to take a man who beats his dog and make him a sympathetic near-hero. Seeing the world Joseph endures, on a council estate in Leeds surrounded by mindless idiots and thugs, makes it possible to see how a mind can stretch itself to fit a status quo of cruelty and solipsism. The only other human Joseph has meaningful interactions with is the son of his neighbor, a boy who sits outside while his mother fucks some obnoxious chav. The boy lives in fear of the man’s vicious pit bull; he and Joseph live in a world crowded with fear, anxiety, and relentless gray skies. The last time Joseph snaps, it’s out of defense for this kid, and while Considine uses the scene for his last, most horrifying image, the act comes coupled with a final clarification of the muddled morality Joseph has tried to live by all along. Even Hannah, in the film’s shuddering climax, reveals that she’s become twisted in her own way, a well-behaved dog kicked far too many times.
What Considine has created with Tyrannosaur is brilliant. There are missteps — the soundtrack wanders into pop-folk at the wrong moment a couple times, and some of his heaviest moments might also be superfluous — but this is the most astonishing portrait of humanity’s basest arenas to appear in years. That Considine doesn’t simply let the grimness overwhelm the film entirely is a welcome relief and, given what some auteurs in the past few years have been willing to do to their characters, might even be a little brave.