By Erik McClanahan | The Playlist October 18, 2011 at 5:59AM
The opening scene of “Tyrannosaur” is a real belter. Through near whiplash-inducing cross cuts, we are introduced to a night in the life of Joseph (Peter Mullan) as he drinks heavily and stews with unfettered rage on a barstool (and back at home with a sawed-off wood baseball bat that looks like a leftover from the “Gangs of New York” props department). Then he does something really awful: he kills his dog. He doesn’t necessarily try to do this; it’s more the product of his excessive drinking, nasty temper and hateful, cynical outlook on the world. But he still did it, and the audience will never forget this for the remainder of the film.
Actor Paddy Considine (“Dead Man’s Shoes,” “24 Hour Party People”), now a fully-fledged writer/director, sets up a difficult challenge for himself with his debut feature. He wants to redeem this terrible human being, and prove to the audience that you can never truly know or understand a person – “with all your complexity, all your perfection, all your imperfection,” to steal a line from “Inception” – from a five-minute scene, even if what we see is truly despicable. We know what he’s capable of, but we don’t understand why Joseph would do such a thing, or why he’s so angry.
And while the end result is something of a mixed bag, featuring great performances from the three leads (Mullan, Olivia Colman and Eddie Marsan) despite a cliché-riddled script, we do admire Considine’s bravery and willingness to explore the nature of a truly angry man. Movies are rarely populated with this kind of protagonist. Perhaps throwing down this gauntlet, though, and focusing so much on earning the audience’s empathy (he’ll never get our sympathies) is what ultimately keeps “Tyrannosaur” from reaching the heights of something like “There Will Be Blood,” a film that was unafraid to present a nasty lead character as its (anti)hero, when in fact he’s been the villain all along. But that may be a slightly unfair comparison because, well, “There Will Be Blood” is a fucking masterpiece.
“Tyrannosaur” is not. But that’s ok because we should be talking about what the film is, not what it isn’t. What it is is an all-too familiar story about angry middle class Englishmen. Seriously, every dude in this film is either a colossal asshole or fall-down drunk, to the point of near-parody. Simply walking down the street or making eye contact with the men in this world will inevitably lead to a confrontation, or at least a “the fuck you looking at cunt!” line from one of the many pissed off characters. If the film is a scale measuring the ratio of black and white (as evil vs. good) in the world, then Considine tips the balance far too much in favor of the black, avoiding the more nuanced and realistic grays that would make the film more challenging, and in our opinion, much better.
That’s not to say this film deals exclusively in absolutes. It’s just that, near the end of the film, when things are revealed about Joseph that give him complexity (so he’s not just a cartoon version of a pissed, and pissed off, brute), it’s too late in the game. The audience has been inundated with unkempt anger for far too long a stretch. Unless you count the sweet-natured young boy that lives next door to Joseph. But even there, Considine seems unwilling to let the slightest bit of goodwill pass unharmed in his malicious cinematic universe, as that same boy is the recipient of a nasty dog attack, leaving his face swollen and scarred. This is the kind of story where the most benevolent action is the subsequent decapitation of said dog by Joseph (and for those keeping count, this is not the same pooch aforementioned in the first paragraph), in an admittedly awesome sequence near the end.
But we do want to focus on the positives in closing, lest you think we missed the many qualities in the film. For one, even though we’ve taken umbrage with some of his story and character choices, Considine is a skilled filmmaker with a deliberate vision. In a first-time feature, that’s rarer than a virgin after prom night. And that vision is onscreen, so it’s likely many will be taken with the film, even though we can’t include ourselves in this camp. We’ve also not given nearly enough praise to Mullan, who we’ve loved in small, but memorable roles in “Trainspotting,” “Children of Men” and the “Red Riding” trilogy, to name a few. He’s terrific in the film and takes advantage of a meaty part that sees him in a rare leading role. It takes an actor of considerable skill to keep us invested in his story despite all the terrible shit he says and does. And Olivia Colman is solid as the naïve, God-fearing moral center of the film that sees past Joseph’s hard shell and into his soul (see what we mean by clichéd?). Eddie Marsan is in top form as her sadistic husband, but the actor is well past due for an against type role that doesn’t see him seething with hatred and anger (in the short time he’s on screen he pisses on, beats up and rapes his wife, and that’s not all).
“Tyrannosaur” is a well-acted but familiar story with an interesting tactic taken by its director. We didn’t love this debut feature, but we do think Considine is a capable filmmaker. We hold out hope he delivers on the glimpses of promise peppered throughout this film. [C+]