Paddy Considine’s ‘Tyrannosaur’ Packs a Gut-Wrenching Punch

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Average: 5 (1 vote) Oscarman rating: 4.5/5.0
Rating: 4.5/5.0

CHICAGO – She first finds him hiding behind a rack of clothes in her small charity shop. He’s the sort of a battered soul that her Christian instincts naturally desire to protect. The way he crouches on the floor and snarls at her causes him to resemble a threatening animal, but the calming prayer that she recites quickly reduces him to tears. Even before their eyes have had the chance to meet, a vital connection has been made between the two strangers.
This is an early scene from the Sundance darling, “Tyrannosaur,” a brutally raw but deeply moving drama that marks the directorial debut of chameleon-esque character actor Paddy Considine. He appears to have followed in the footsteps of his fellow countryman, Tim Roth, whose first (and only) feature, 1999’s “The War Zone,” was uncompromisingly grim but also exhilaratingly well acted. It’s clear that both Roth and Considine’s experience in front of the camera has greatly contributed to their ease in directing actors.
As studios churn out their expensive awards campaigns for A-list stars, small foreign gems like “Tyrannosaur” nearly always get lost in the shuffle. That’s a real shame, considering moviegoers will be hard-pressed to find two better performances this year than the ones delivered here by Peter Mullan and Olivia Colman, both reprising their roles from Considine’s 2007 short, “Dog Altogether.” As Joseph, the man hiding behind the clothes rack, Mullan proves he is as deftly convincing at portraying the inner demons of an alcoholic psyche as he was in Ken Loach’s 1998 effort, “My Name is Joe,” for which he received the Best Actor prize at Cannes. When the shop owner, Hannah (Colman), gently asks for his name, Joseph replies, “Robert De Niro,” an appropriate choice considering that there is a touch of Travis Bickle in his consuming rage and disgust at the neighbors he despises. He makes Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino” look like Mr. Rogers, but as the film progresses, Considine’s script gradually unearths the shattered man beneath the ferocious exterior. The only glimmer of friendship to be found on the embittered widower’s block is offered by a young boy. Joseph spends much of his time leering across the street at the boy’s ineffectual mother and her sadistic boyfriend, whose bark is almost certainly worse than his bite. Yet the dog that the boyfriend keeps at his side proves to be the real threat, since the poor creature can only take so much abuse before it finally snaps.

Peter Mullan stars in Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur.
Peter Mullan stars in Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur.
Photo credit: Strand Releasing

There are moments when the narrative appears to be heading toward a “Taxi Driver”-style bloodbath, but Considine subverts expectations every step of the way. As a director, he proves to have an assured sense of pacing and a superb understanding of dramatic nuance, yet his writing is so strong that he could also pursue a full-time career as a serious screenwriter. The dialogue is nakedly honest and never hits a single inauthentic note. The character of Hannah is not the stereotypical privileged bleeding heart that Joseph assumes she is when he first encounters her. She’s the sort of empathetic caregiver skilled in the art of the one-way conversation. Perhaps that’s what initially attracted her to her husband James, played by Eddie Marsan, a fine actor unnervingly adept at portraying loathsome, violently insecure basket cases. His seething jealousy and horrifying temper have caused Hannah to live in a constant state of fear, while shielding herself with words designed to soothe his fragile ego. Communication between the two of them has been comprised entirely of deception, yet once James catches her in a lie, Hannah has no one but Joseph to turn to for protection. Marsan’s scenes are so painful to watch that they border on repellant, but Considine never pushes the material into crass exploitation a la “Harry Brown.”
Colman’s emotionally wrenching performance is nothing short of a revelation. British viewers are well accustomed to seeing her in small screen comedies such as the uproariously funny “Peep Show,” yet the tremendous dramatic range that she demonstrates in this role is an acting tour de force on par with Michael Fassbender’s extraordinarily versatile work in a host of pictures this year. There’s a memorable sequence in which Considine has the camera linger on Hannah as she scurries to compose herself in the back room of her shop, removing all remnants of visible emotion so as not to trouble customers. One of the most intriguing thematic elements in the film is the way in which Hannah’s story parallels that of the dog next door. Editor Pia Di Ciaula creates a hypnotic rhythm between scenes, while linking together seemingly unrelated moments, such as when a tense conversation cuts to loud crash in an altogether different location, thus hinting at the violence that occurred offscreen. Considine structures the picture like a gathering storm, while building up to a conclusion as shatteringly bleak as it is oddly hopeful.

Paddy Considine directs Olivia Colman on the set of Tyrannosaur.
Paddy Considine directs Olivia Colman on the set of Tyrannosaur.
Photo credit: Strand Releasing

Needless to say, “Tyrannosaur” is far from a pick-me-up. It’s saying something when the happiest scene in a film takes place at a funeral service. Squeamish viewers will find it a very tough sit, as will animal lovers, but audiences willing to brave its unapologetic intensity will be rewarded with one of the most riveting cinematic experiences of the year. The plot does raise a few nagging questions such as why Hannah wouldn’t reach out to authorities to report the domestic battery, even after Joseph witnessed the extent of her husband’s abuse. There’s also a key plot twist toward the end that’s more confusing than anything, though it does pave the way for a profoundly effective denouement. One hopes that “Tyrannosaur” will not be Considine’s only feature directorial effort, since it establishes him as a major voice in modern filmmaking. As for his two lead actors, their work here is guaranteed to haunt moviegoers long after the majority of this year’s Oscar bait has evaporated from their memory. No list of the year’s greatest performances will be complete without Mullan and Colman.

‘Tyrannosaur stars Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman, Eddie Marsan, Paul Popplewell, Ned Dennehy, Samuel Bottomley and Sally Carmen. It was written and directed by Paddy Considine. It opened Dec. 2 at the Music Box Theatre. It is not rated. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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