Monday, January 09, 2012
Faith, hopelessness and channeling rage
By Edward Copeland
Sometimes when U.K. filmmakers delve into the bleak realm of damaged souls, what results can be unrelentingly grim and depressing to watch. Other times though, such as with Tyrannosaur, actor Paddy Considine's first feature as writer and director, the work may revolve around people in dire and dysfunctional circumstances but Considine and his cast execute the film with such finesse that the carefully crafted mood doesn't transfer to the audience.
Considine, who was so great as the father in Jim Sheridan's 2002 film In America, shows real skills both as a writer and a director with Tyrannosaur, which comes vividly to life thanks to what basically amounts to a three-character story. To be certain, the screenplay populates the film with many more characters that interact with the three main ones, but the casting of those top parts provide the crucial fuel to launch Tyrannosaur into the stratosphere.
Tyrannosaur stars Scottish actor Peter Mullan as Joseph, giving his best performance since Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe which came to U.S. shores in 1999. The widowed Joseph's blood system runs so thick with rage that it's a wonder it hasn't clogged his arteries and induced a fatal heart attack. The film gives us a startling introduction to Joseph as his temper explodes and he kicks his dog to death. Ordinarily, an act of violence of that sort would turn me off immediately. Hidden within Joseph though exists remorse, and the way he tenderly carries the dead dog, sobs over what he's done and prepares the canine's burial, proves touching.
However, Joseph remains Joseph and he still gets into scraps be it with neighbors or strangers. During one excursion through town, Joseph wanders into a Christian thrift store where the woman who works there, Hannah (Olivia Colman), senses his troubles and tries to approach him from a religious standpoint, but Joseph rejects God in very unkind and profane terms. Another day when Joseph ends up on the wrong end of a fight with an ugly wound on his forehead, he finds himself waiting outside the thrift store for Hannah to open it. She's reluctant to do it, but Hannah lets Joseph in and he sees that she's been on the losing side of a brawl as well.
Eventually, these two wounded characters build a trust and Joseph learns that while Hannah might preach the Gospel, at home she's victimized by her husband James (a frightening Eddie Marsan, in a role far removed from his great driving instructor in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky). You probably think you know how things will turn out, but the film actually picks unexpected directions.
To offer somewhat of a "break" from the terrible situation that Hannah finds herself in, Considine occasionally cuts back to a subplot concerning a feud between Joseph and the boyfriend of a woman across the street (Sian Breckin) who walks around with a pit bull chained to his pants and abuses her friendly son (Samuel Bottomley). It's strange to consider this the film's "comic relief," but it plays that way.
Considine, both as a writer and director, constantly surprises you with the direction the story takes which makes the many negative reviews I've seen (none of which I read until after I saw the movie) that think it's a by-the-numbers British working-class kitchen sink drama of violence seem as if they were watching something else. Considine receives substantial aid from Pia Di Ciaula's editing.
Considine's greatest asset turns out to be that cast. Marsan has the smallest role, but he's quite scary and impressive. Colman, who I don't recall seeing before, proves a wonder as Hannah, presenting us with one image only to destroy that and make us see the complicated woman who lies beneath. Mullan though holds the already strong film together. At one point, someone asks Joseph what his name is and he gives the smart ass answer, "Robert De Niro." With his nearly shaved head, Joseph could be Travis Bickle, except he's more grounded. His cragged face looks as if it could tell Joseph's life story in Braille. Mullan's work belongs in the consideration of 2011's best. Too bad you haven't heard his name once.
As for the meaning of the title Tyrannosaur, Joseph explains that in a great speech that comes in the third act of the film that runs at an incredibly efficient 90 minutes.