Dir. Paddy Considine. Starring Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman, Eddie Marsan
Three British movies of 2011 far outshine the rest of that year: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Shame, and We Need to Talk About Kevin. The first is a movie about the trail cruelty leaves, the way a betrayal goes on to damage people far outside its original purview. The second is about how cruelty to oneself never does stay that way, as it’s more likely to continue expanding outwards. And the third, almost certainly the darkest and most haunting of the bunch, uses an outwardly secure family as a way to dig deeply into the trauma left by psychological cruelty. Those movies are a remarkable trifecta, and most movies with similar themes would pale against them. But Tyrannosaur, the well-reviewed directorial debut of actor Paddy Considine, was released the same year, and it means to add a fourth cruelty to the bunch. Male cruelty is squarely in the crosshairs in Tyrannosaur, a film which follows an aging loner with the world’s shortest fuse, Joseph (Mullan). Joseph is a drinker, prone to making noise with his fists and his growl alike. Joseph is not the only physically abusive fellow in the film; he has foils in James (Marsan), a well-off man who, quite originally, uses his member as a weapon, and in “Bod” (Paul Popplewell), a slightly tubby man dating one of Joseph’s neighbors wielding an overaggressive dog. Compared to Alfredson, McQueen, and Ramsay—and many more less august filmmakers—Considine is hilariously maladroit. His film is deeply immature, rather like the creative writing of angsty preteens who have just discovered books where people say bad words and have sex and who have decided it’s their turn now. That this schlock seemed serious to anyone, I suppose, is part of whatever credulous disease infected critics and viewers alike in 2011, when The Artist premiered as well.
In the first twenty minutes or so of Tyrannosaur, Considine works really hard to shock us. People say “fuck” a whole lot, and James pees on his passed-out wife Hannah (Colman), and Joseph beats up some kids, but not until we’ve already seen him kick his dog to death. Joseph insults Jesus, which I guess would be really appalling if the guy hadn’t been killed a couple thousand years ago. The movie calms down a little bit from there, mostly because it has a plot it wants to get to, but in the end Considine can’t help himself. James rapes Hannah. A young boy who Joseph likes, the son of the neighbor dating “Bod,” gets mauled by the dog on the boyfriend’s orders. Joseph hacks the dog’s head off and sits in his yard with it until the boyfriend notices. It turns out, predictably, that Hannah murdered James after he raped her; almost as predictably, his penchant for shoving stuff into her privates that doesn’t belong there caused the would-be mother’s infertility. If this all sounds like dime-store novel trash, it’s because it plays out this way without the pulpy, knowing irony that redeems the trash. Perhaps Considine learned somewhere that if the lighting is dim enough and one’s star is possessed of a raspy voice, then we have “realism,” but the trimmings can’t save the film from the ludicrous self-importance purveyors of violence seem addicted to. In practice, what we have is cut-rate Eastwood in Mullan, who, I don’t remember if I mentioned this, is actually super angry all the time, and cut-rate Eastwood cinematography that evokes a clogged commode. Tyrannosaur at least has a cool title, but even that is pissed all over by the explanation. Considine appears to have read a screenwriting textbook somewhere that suggests you reveal the unusual reason for the unusual name of your film in the last quarter of the movie for the sake of gravitas, and so we find out that the “Tyrannosaur” was Joseph’s late wife, who was fat. It’s as stupid in practice as it sounds here, and it’s as good an example as the movie has of taking something to its extreme only to find out it’s laughable once it arrives. If it’s not a tragedy, then it must be kitschen sink. A movie like Look Back in Anger is histrionic as well, but at least movies of that ilk had the grace not to try so hard all the time.
Maybe most unforgivable of all, more unforgivable than the ridiculous plot held inside a junk drawer of obscenities, is a scene after a funeral. Joseph, who actually has a heart underneath all that anger (I know I couldn’t see that coming), mourns the death of a good friend with the other attendees. It quickly becomes one of those celebration-of-life kind of things instead, complete with beer and singing and dancing that we must assume the deceased man would have appreciated. And not long after that, it becomes a montage of little moments from the pub, all of it overlaid with non-diegetic music. It’s a glib little statement which is supposed to be moving, a way for us to witness the way that Joseph and Hannah are developing as people and started to let their hair down around each other. In practice, it says is that Ken Loach, for all his excesses, would never give us a slideshow to smile wistfully at. It’s a complete misunderstanding of what makes us sad or pensive or prayerful, and if it mattered so much, why are we in such a hurry to sum it up? No one can get warm at a fire in twenty seconds, and if we aren’t to get warm then we may as well keep moving on, for at that point in the film there are still miles to go.
Even if Considine has no gift for the majority of things a writer-director ought to have a gift for, his cast is very good. (At this point it’s worth mentioning that I love every performance of Paddy Considine’s that I have ever seen, and that unless an actor is Charles Laughton s/he should probably stay in front of the camera.) Olivia Colman has a difficult role because her character is such a cartoon of sadness, but the fact that we can feel anything for her at all is a testament to her ability. With her closely cut hair and her penchant for flowing, ugly sweaters, she just looks like she belongs in the posher part of a run-down town. Like everyone else in the movie, Hannah swings wildly between “kind person looking out for others” and “maniac waiting to be unleashed,” and more than anyone else Colman manages to make this person seem realistic. The tone in her voice when she offers to pray for Joseph is precisely the one we hear from polite do-gooders; we believe her when she says she wants to make a nice breakfast for Joseph as a way of thanking him for letting her stay at his place; her quiet affinity for wine is a recognizable indicator of bourgeois despair, and she holds her glass like someone who gave up the novelty of the ware a long time ago. Mullan does not have the depth that Colman does in this movie, but on the whole he’s as believable as Rambo of Leeds can be. Like Colman, he looks right for the part, but unlike her there’s not enough there there over the course of the film for us to appreciate him. Mullan’s best piece of acting is done when he isn’t trying to sound like Batman, but when his eyes flawlessly read the situation at Hannah’s home. Armed with her house keys and prepared to have one of those knuckly conversations with James, he finds James’ bleeding and flyridden corpse instead. But before he ever got past the foyer, he knew something was wrong. His eyes move suspiciously, his brow furrows, and Mullan gives us a look into Joseph’s intelligence that the movie itself rarely recognizes.