In a working-class part of the city of Leeds in northern England, a man in the grip of an alcoholic rage beats a dog to death. This is just one of many harrowing moments in “Tyrannosaur.”
Directed by British actor turned filmmaker Paddy Considine, “Tyrannosaur” is a feature debut that crash-lands into the senses and burns up with a vengeance. Watching this tale of three people locked in violence and misery, you find yourself gasping for a bit of air, a little respite, anything to get away. One thing’s for sure: This relentless, riveting movie certainly catches the attention.
The Japanese title, “Shishyuki,” refers to life’s autumn period, when middle-agers are prone to experience anxiety and confusion without fully knowing why. This doesn’t come remotely close to describing the black, poisonous emotions plaguing the adults in “Tyrannosaur.” There is, perhaps, the thinnest sliver of a lining among the slate-gray clouds — but it takes a lot of looking to find it.
The titular dinosaur refers to Leeds laborer Joseph (Peter Mullan), who wears his tormented anger right on his sleeve and all over his face. When he’s not unleashing his brutality on the world, Joseph is sinking into a bottomless depression at the local pub. He’s such a wreck that a voice in the pub asks: “Are you all right, Joseph?” The voice belongs to Considine, who was so moved by Mullan’s performance that he just had to pop the question from behind the camera.
After a fight with some local gangsters, Joseph runs into a charity shop for cover among the second-hand coats. The shop’s sole volunteer staff, Hannah (Olivia Colman), coaxes Joseph to come out, and he does so, even as fury and fear encompass his entire being.
Hannah sees in him a soulmate. She herself is the battered wife of sneaky scumbag James (Eddie Marsan), whose respectable businessman facade only just hides the cowardly drunk within. What prompts her to seek the company of Joseph is a mystery that’s never really cleared up. “I feel safe with you,” she says to him. “Nobody’s safe with me,” growls Joseph with a frightening ring of truth.
Interestingly, Mullan has played a similar role (perhaps his most famous one) with a similar name, in “My Name is Joe” (1998). In that, he was an unemployed 30-something alcoholic in Glasgow and his love relationship with a social worker was touching to see.
This 50-ish Joseph is another story. He has no illusions about himself and no hope for the future; having submerged himself in alcohol for decades, he knows there’s nothing in store but a blacker hell than the one he’s in now. Hannah appears in his life like a gift but Joseph’s frayed nerves can’t take much stimulus, let alone happiness.
In a way, Joseph and James are easy to understand; it’s Hannah, the link between them, who’s the real enigma. Initially she comes off like a textbook case of the battered woman, stuck in an endless loop of violence, but her attraction to Joseph is genuine.
Is she aware of the risk involved in switching from James to Joseph? From Hannah’s expression, it’s hard to tell. She spends half the movie with a huge, ugly bruise disfiguring her face, her eyes tired and full of pain. Yet she’s devoutly religious and tells Joseph in a sweet, trilling voice that she prays for him. Colman’s understated, tragic performance is an eye-opener and it’s hard to believe that her other job is as one of Britian’s most loved comediennes (“Peep Show”).
According to the production notes, Considine grew up on a Midlands public-housing estate and the story bears the marks of his own childhood. His gaze on the trio is neither kind nor judgmental, but simply precise. Considine is a great observer of faces, and the camera is especially alert to the twitches and jaw jumps on Joseph’s visage. This is a man who doesn’t want to be saved, who’d rather drown himself in a vat of whiskey.
“Tyrannosaur” highlights the rich cache of talented players in the British acting world, distinctive in their ability to portray blue-collar realities. Mullan, whose entire being recalls the craggiest pair of vintage jeans, has the hammy hands and murderous glint of a 19th-century workhouse foreman. If Charles Dickens were to rise from the grave and make his own movie adaptations, no doubt he would hotfoot it to Mullan’s door and start pounding.
It’s increasingly difficult to find convincing specimens of working-class manhood, but Britain has an enviable stable of capable actors. One look at Peter Mullan and you absolutely know he has worked with his bare hands, taken some heavy blows, howled with rage and sadness. For “Tyrannosaur” he is an invaluable asset.