TYRANNOSAUR: Miserable is Easy

Questions about the duties of a good reader/viewer dominate the first draft of nearly anything I write lately about books, film, or TV—the efforts a reader ought to make to approach a work on its own, to ignore his/her biases, to give it an adequate level of attention. At best, this preoccupation with what a good reader/viewer does/doesn’t do leads to the sort of figurative going-down of previously unseen pathways that comes with more carefully considering any given work. At worst, it’s a sign that even though you escaped Catholicism a decade ago, you still want to feel guilty about something. (Just kidding [mostly kidding].) In any case, these are really useful terms on which to talk about Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur. Tyrannosaur, a work of unrelenting harshness, screened in Minneapolis last week as part of the MSPIFF, to an audience that seemed to gasp and cringe in unison.

Paddy Considine

Considine is perhaps best known to American audiences as one of the detectives who heckled Simon Pegg in Hot Fuzz or for his supporting role in The Bourne Ultimatum, although he also played the lead in the excellent Red Riding: 1980, which received a limited stateside release. Tyrannosaur is his directorial debut. The film is the story of damaged people who find each other, similar to mid-‘00s cult hits Head-On and Me and You and Everyone We Know. And like those films, Tyrannosaur begins with a jolt, as working-class British angryman Joseph (Peter Mullan) accidentally kills his own dog in a drunken fit. (A minor spoiler, granted, but consider knowing that a dog is kicked to death five minutes into Tyrannosaur a ‘You Must Be This Tall to Ride’ kind of thing.)

Mullan’s Joseph introduces himself to Hannah (Olivia Colman), the other damaged person, as “Robert De Niro.” And Mullan’s performance legitimately recalls good De Niro—the simmering anger of Travis Bickle, the small tics that remind us to be wary of him even when he moves with good intentions. Colman, like Paddy Considine, is probably best known for her role in Hot Fuzz (the lewd-humored cop Doris Thatcher), and the jump she makes as the pious, barely-composed Olivia is something stunning. These are—lest I sound like I’m dumping on what’s often a moving film—powerful performances that make Tyrannosaur worth seeking out.
As Joseph and Hannah move toward an uneasy friendship, they’re subjected to a variety of abuses and humiliations, including in Hannah’s case an onscreen rape. Anyone who has seen Head-On remembers the brutalization of actress Sibel Kekilli in a Turkish alleyway, a scene of bloody excess that inadvertently becomes a burlesque of film violence. The excesses of Tyrannosaur come on more gradually, but after a while, they’re hard to ignore.
In a moment of relative levity midway through the film, Joseph and Hannah attend the funeral of Joseph’s best friend. An afternoon of drinking with other funeral-goers follows, as they celebrate the memory of the deceased. The scenes after the funeral, filled with music and laughter, are perhaps Tyrannosaur’s most poignant–and a brief departure from the film’s general miserablism. The result is a feeling that we’re seeing the characters more completely. And, at least for me, the feeling that the film’s many scenes of people abusing each other were all a bit much in the end–a reading that struck me as reductive, and not really becoming of a proper film geek, but nonetheless true. (i.e., The friend who attended the screening with me left feeling fatigued, and so did I. Which, maybe that’s the point, but what’s the point of that?)

Tyrannosaur‘s ideal viewer can endure a lot of scenes of people being awful, but beyond that, it isn’t very challenging. Considine posits that life is nasty, which is easy to understand and easy to put across. The film is a remarkably assured debut, directed with control and a sense of purpose–but absent restraint. And consequently, nobody’s skills are put to the best possible use.

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