As the lukewarm reception for the just-released and much-hyped Angelina Jolie-directed In the Land of Blood and Honey has proved, it’s often not easy for an actor to turn director. Popular actors cum directors have made more critically successful transitions than Jolie (see Clint Eastwood) … but then there is also Ron Howard. Heck, Robert Redford has made a career of mixed-reviewed movies.
For someone like Paddy Considine, a name not normally bandied about in households, these comparisons are unfair, ultimately. Considine is probably best recognized in the US as a character actor cloaked in references like “that-guy-in-that-movie.” In his native UK, he is more recognizable. Still, in the end, the man at the helm of a movie like Tyrannosaur matters little. This film has so much life and vibrancy (albeit on the grimmer range of the spectrum), it outshines the personality who conceived it. Chalk up another stellar disappearing act by Considine, who does not even appear in front of the camera in the movie, though the nuance of a character actor certainly informs the film.
Considine’s debut feature as writer and director is a creature fueled by its own power, maybe not too different from Eastwood’s Gran Torino or Unforgiven. It focuses on a man haunted by regrets who finally decides to take action for something beyond wallowing in his own misery … at least a little bit. As represented by the film’s title (and poster art), these regrets are indeed buried deep below the surface, are quite large and definitive and prove impossible to excavate and turn around. This journey of futility proves a riveting and intense experience to watch in a cinema.
The film wastes no time establishing Joseph (Peter Mullan) as a time bomb. Staggering drunk after a visit to a pub, angry over who knows what, he kicks his dog. The blow proves fatal for the poor beast. It sets the director up for the challenging task to humanize this old, mean drunk as someone the audience can sympathize with. During the first act of the film, one incident after another ratchets up the tension. Just as you think a confrontation involving Joseph is resolved without violence and he walks away, he pops back on screen to lay down the wrath. Soon enough a gripping sense of terror follows the man like a gloomy, sticky cloud.
But Considine’s agenda is more than instilling dread in the audience. A glimpse of Joseph’s humanity soon emerges when he hides in a charity shop and the store’s clerk, Hannah (Olivia Colman), offers to pray for him. After he tells her to “fuck off,” she says a prayer anyhow, asking God to forgive this man, and he breaks down in tears while hiding behind a rack of clothes. Still, Joseph’s issues are far from resolved. His nasty streak comes out soon after, probing Hannah for what pains her only to turn it back against her, this time leaving her in tears. It’s some twisted payback.
Despite this vicious cycle of cruelty and caring, the pair form a bond. Hannah is also a creature of rage. A victim of domestic abuse at the hands of her husband James (Eddie Marsan), it turns out her devout behavior offers her a front, a lifeline that she clings to in order to find some kind of hope. Reality trumps her spirituality, however, and things get awful real quick … on her part.
Tyrannosaur is an intense film with a tight and efficient storyteller at the helm. Considine does not waste a moment in this film. The roller coaster of emotions swing widely as the story shows bliss, whatever that elusive thing might, has no place in a world of desperate lives unraveling under the specter of not just gloom but death and killing. The film flows so smoothly, Considine wastes nary a frame. There are a few powerful jump cuts. One in particular is augmented by the sound and image of Joseph demolishing his shed with a sledgehammer, which resonates for reasons beyond the literal action in the scene.
Though the story and drama is quite down-to-earth, the pace of the film is riveting, and the performances are amazingly generous and intimate. All the performers, including a little neighborhood boy (Samuel Bottomley) who seems to care how Joseph feels day-in and day-out, bring stellar performances to back the story up. From one scene to the next, be it the unpredictable behavior of the characters or the powder keg situations of humans unwilling to get along, Tyrannosaur never relents the drama and surprises.
Tyrannosaur is Unrated, runs 91 min., and plays in South Florida for two nights only on Wednesday, Dec. 28 and Thursday, Dec. 29, at 8 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which loaned me to a screener DVD for the purposes of this review.
(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)