‘Tyrannosaur’ sees beyond the monster in the man
‘Tyrannosaur’’ opens with the main character drunkenly kicking his dog to death. Then it dares us to forgive him, or at least understand him. Because that character is played by the gifted actor Peter Mullan, we get enough widening glimmers of humanity to at least make the investment. The movie is cruelly frank about the ways damage cascades down to the powerless, but while it’s not for the fainthearted (or for animal lovers), rewards are there.
Mullan was most recently seen as the father in Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse,’’ a film that wallows in the sentimentality “Tyrannosaur’’ avoids. As Joseph, a Yorkshire rageaholic whose fires are finally burning down, the actor alternates a sense of imminent threat with helpless outbursts of violence. You see this man coming down the street, you cross to the other side.
In the wake of his wife’s death, Joseph is beginning to open his eyes; his self-pity is melting into something larger and more sorrowful. The film’s title comes from his nickname for his wife - a big woman, she could shake the teacups, “Jurassic Park’’-style, just by walking around the house - but it could as easily apply to Joseph, with his leathery skin and carnivore’s stare.
Mullan (who’s a fine director when he has a mind; he made 2002’s “The Magdalene Sisters’’) could play this character in his sleep. He doesn’t, but you do sense him stepping back before the other central performance in “Tyrannosaur,’’ that of Olivia Colman as Hannah, a meekly devout shopkeeper who tries to befriend Joseph. Hannah has an abusive husband at home, and Eddie Marsan does what he can with that thankless, underwritten part. Colman, however, is simply a marvel, conveying naive hope, denial, terror, strength, and every other contradictory emotion in this intelligent and beleaguered woman. It’s the sort of acting that would get awards thrown at it if anyone were paying attention.
“Tyrannosaur’’ is the feature writing and directing debut of actor Paddy Considine (“In America’’), and there are lumps in the batter. A two-fold character study with fits and starts of plot, it bears down on its bleakness with an insistence that often feels forced. Although it appears artless, the film’s dramatic deck is stacked, with an adorable neighborhood tyke (Samuel Bottomley) for Joseph to feel protective toward and the boy’s loathsome yobbo stepfather (Paul Popplewell) for us to hate. One of Joseph’s down-and-out drinking buddies (Ned Dennehy) spouts racist rhetoric, but you sense that’s only to make the hero look better by comparison.
Still, Considine knows what wrecked lives look like - how they can easily become the thing that hurts them or, alternately, respond to tentative kindness in kind. If “Tyrannosaur’’ climaxes with a second act of animal cruelty that threatens to wipe out any sympathy we might have for Joseph, it’s equally clear that he’s able to channel his anger instead of being in thrall to it. Does that make him even more frightening? Perhaps. But the film also makes you curious about what these actors and this director will do next.