Tyrannosaur–Sundance Fest 2011

 By Patrick Z. McGavin

Sundance Fest 2011 (Dramatic Competition)–A searing meditation on the nature of good and evil, Paddy Considine’s feature debut “Tyrannosaur” has moments of brilliance and shocking power, at a price. though it is also overpowering in not always welcome ways. 

A study of sin and redemption, the movie fits into the loose rubric of “British miserabalism,” stories of pain and abuse and the social restrictions of tortured relationships set against bleak and impoverished social backdrops. The manner and tone, not to mention the religious pursuit of exaltation, consciously evokes the works of French master Robert Bresson. Considine makes the reference explicit at the conclusion with an almost a note for note re-imagining of that director’s great “Pickpocket.” 

The superb actor Peter Mullan gives a galvanic and terrifying performance as a violent and defeated man trying to find salvation. The movie had its US premiere at Sundance, and it won the world dramatic directing award for Considine.  Furthermore, Mullan and his Olivia Colman earned a special jury citation for their astonishing work.

As good as the film is for a lot of its running time, Mullan points out what a more assured and expressive director might have done with the material. Mullan won the Golden Lion at Venice with his second feature, “The Magdalena Sisters,” and his recent “Neds,” is a no less exhilarating piece of work.

Considine and Mullan both worked on the recent British “Red Riding Trilogy.“ The misery index is off the charts. The violence and withering, and neither man, woman, child nor animal is spared during the movie’s furiously bleak trajectory. 

This is the kind of movie, for instance, where a brutish and sadistic man thinks nothing of returning to their fancy home and seeing his wife passed out on the couch of marking his disgust by urinating over her body as she sleeps. Whether a function of Considine’s inexperience behind the camera or the sheer unpleasantness of the material, “Tyrannosaur” passes through a range of emotions, intense, delirious but also punishing and at times even suffocating. 

What saves the work is the spare, emotional intensity of the central relationship. Mullan plays Joseph (another example of the film’s too oppressive religious signifiers), an angry, punitive and reckless man whose near constant besotted state leaves him a terrifyingly violent and vengeful man. He exists in a permanent haze, constantly drunk and continuously on the verge of breakdown or causing mayhem, either on his own dog, or most frighteningly, against a group of kids who make the mistake of talking back to him at a pub one bleak afternoon.

He is a man without companionship or release. His only friend is suffering from late stage cancer. He feels protective towards a young boy who lives across the street from his council flat. Following yet another altercation, Joseph finds himself seeking temporary shelter in a store, a kind of funky second hand clothing shop and dry cleaning store run by Hannah (Colman).

She’s apparently everything he is not: pious, friendly and in control. A strange spark appears to pass between the two, and suddenly Joseph finds himself returning to the store and the two began a wary and very tentative friendship. He mocks her faith, but calls on her help, asking her for instance to pray for his friend, for instance.

Hannah appears to be the kind of solidly upper middle class woman Joseph has little time or patience for cultivating a friendship. Consistent with the movie’s extremely dour tone, Hannah has a less welcoming story of her own. Despite having all the apparent accoutrements of wealth and stability, her own life is a nightmare. She is brutalized by her husband James (Mike Leigh regular Eddie Marsan) through a series of petty extortions and ugly coercive behavior where he sly humiliates her or bludgeons her his fists, especially after he wrongly concludes something is going on romantically between her and Joseph.

In the story’s most interesting twist, they exchange roles. As Hannah’s home life becomes untenable, Joseph is her savior, to a point. “Tyrannosaur” is a moody, powerful and sometimes overwrought film. For good and bad, it throws everything right in front without fear or failure. Fortunately, Mullan and Colman are such beguiling and interesting actors, they make up for the dour and solemn tone that threatens to wreck the quieter internal drama.

The move is at its best in the less showy and flamboyant parts of violence and retribution. The story that explains the title, for instance, is consistent with Joseph’s search for grace that gives the movie a dignity and worth that elides over the ugliness and the repellent material. Colman is less well-known to American audiences. 

For the material to work, it requires a strong and emphatic voice as an emotional ballast to Joseph. She is very much up to the challenge. Horrible things happen to her, but she brings a quiet conviction and intensity. Even if the situations sometimes strain credulity, she has a manner, an authenticity about her that registers firmly on its own.

As he showed as the driving instructor in Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky” or a psychopath in “The Disappearance of Alice Creed,” Marsan has no problems going over the edge, either. The part is murkily written and conceived. He’s a monster, but too one-sided to create a character of true menace.

“Tyrannosaur” is a death grip of a movie. Even when it goes too far, like a late part about a boy and a dog, it stays with you. That does not necessarily qualify it as art, but a good film about furious and unsettling people trying to make good in a world without much light. It is easier to appreciate than enjoy, but the power and force of the actors carry the moment.