A few days ago, I wrote on Martha Marcy May Marlene, which I called a “stunning debut.” Well, here we have another one, titled Tyrannosaur, written and directed by actor-turned-filmmaker Paddy Considine. If Durkin’s debut creeps up from behind you with its mystifying atmosphere, Considine’s hits you head-on with its sheer grit. Pulling no punches and softening no body blows, this grimy English character-drama creates a brutal, occasionally excruciating experience about the bonds between people, both destructive and redemptive. It it sounds unpleasant, that’s because it is. But Tyrannosaur never wallows in its misery, never provokes for the mere sake of doing it, and it neither gives nor receives sadistic pleasure in its portrayal of human darkness. On the contrary, it sympathizes with the radically unsympathetic, displaying keen observational knowledge that no model citizen is without his or her defects, and no reprobate is without his or her virtues. Considine does not judge his characters; he does not attempt to explain away their behavior through cheap psychology; and he certainly does not jostle them into tidy endings that belie their complexities. The human heart holds a propensity toward both good and evil, and in each pole, as well as the uneasily distinguishable shades between them, the characters simply exist. Exist, by extension, do the actors. And it is in this area that the film rises to particularly magnificent heights. At once showy and natural, scarily intense and imperviously subtle, Peter Mullan and Oliva Colman shake the foundations but never go over-the-top to something that fails to resemble reality. Pulverizing, heartbreaking, and unexpectedly touching, Tyrannosaur constructs a heavy mood that I won’t readily revisit anytime soon. But to be within this world for 90 minutes is an encounter not quickly shaken, and I credit everyone involved for pushing the throttle and not letting up. With two uncannily brilliant performances at its center, this small miracle of a movie is willing to turn a lot of people off to communicate to a strong-stomached few.
In the opening minutes, Joseph (Mullan) is presented as one of the most detestable individuals ever put on screen. His vile behavior clearly stems from a great deal of hurt—his best friend is dying, his wife is dead, and his dog is, well, dead—but it does not excuse his dour alcoholism, his contemptible comments to total strangers as knee-jerk reactions, or his apparent relishing of his own depression. That Mullan is able to not only find but express a human being beneath this checklist of hateful characteristics is a marvel of itself. Through circumstances largely dependent on chance, Joseph encounters Hannah (Colman), a woman whose every glance and movement seems to contradict the downward-spiraling Joseph. Emanating grace, turning the other cheek, and praying for her enemies, Hannah appears to be a stalwart bastion of the Christian faith. Joseph and Hannah eventually strike up an unlikely, intermittently stable friendship: she, the victim of marital abuse, and he, the dispenser and collector of self-abuse. When Hannah’s husband James (played by the clever Eddie Marsan, who spares no expense in the loathsome department) goes too far one fateful night, she decides to leave him for good. We might begin with Joseph, but this is Hannah’s story, just as it is Colman’s film. As events unravel, we realize that people are often different than what they appear to be, and they are never only what they appear to be. A rather bleak portrait of life is created here, but there are also flashes that lift us out of the struggle, particularly a wonderfully executed post-funeral pub-party, wherein laughter and tears are not designated to one corresponding emotion. This is the narrative of two lost souls in the pit of suffering, some of it self-inflicted and some of it other-inflicted. They are able to gradually, momentarily strengthen one another, even though we know that the clock is ticking and the “rosy conclusion” card is one unlikely to be played by the filmmaker. Tyrannosaur admirably eschews a simple ending, but it doesn’t entirely eschew a redemptive one, as we question the nature of faith amidst unthinkable hardships and the nature of human connectivity amidst the saints and the sinners.
The acting on display is among the finest imaginable in this medium. Mullan is mesmerizing in his internalization of a rage too deep for words and a violence too foreign for them. Like a wild beast in a domestic environment, Mullan’s Joseph is initially alien-like, physically raging against the world and verbally denigrating its inhabitants. Yet, as substances subside and blood-pressure lowers, the charismatic thespian effortlessly slides into careful, natural rhythms that reveal an occasional calm center of this masculine storm. Yet, while both actors do captivating work in tandem, Colman takes the narrative to a new level, offering, quite simply, one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. The amount of craft necessary to construct such a complete portrayal is unfathomable, but the fact that it never comes across as craft is even more so. Hannah’s every scene would give actors nightmares before auditions, but in the hands of Colman, she is a living, breathing individual and not a character ripe for affectation. It’s as if every glance stirs an emotion, every line-delivery divulges acute pain behind those soft, doe-like eyes. She incites viewers’ tears with the subtlest gesture, instinctively soldering us to what it must be like to walk in Hannah’s skin. It’s a monumental turn that exploits neither the peaks nor the valleys, one that culminates in a conclusive break-down so stinging, so shattering, so resonant. That this performance barely has an outside chance at major awards recognition is beyond me, but like Lesley Manville’s similarly exposed turn in 2010′s Another Year, it reminds us that the ones shadowed by the spotlight often affect us the most powerfully.
Tyrannosaur is a difficult, prickly little film, but it presents rich rewards as it encases us in its atmosphere and plunges us into the lives of its all-to-human characters. Considine’s experience as an actor has translated into the realm of actor’s director, as he extracts tender, corrosive performances from the incredibly gifted Mullan and Colman. I love movies that compel you to experience them rather than merely watch them, and this British gem is no different. Cringe-inducing and not easy on the tear ducts, it’s impossible to keep a safe distance from Tyrannosaur, but I would have it no other way.