Sunday 2 October 2011

Men and monsters: "Tyrannosaur"

Those who believe you can tell a lot about a people from the manner in which they treat their animals will be the demographic most alarmed by Tyrannosaur, the actor Paddy Considine's feature directorial debut. As an example of things to come, consider Joseph (Peter Mullan), who in the film's opening moments hares out of a betting shop, and - furious that his horse hasn't come in, that they never seem to come in - suddenly, brutally kicks his pet dog to death. And this, as Joseph later confesses, was a creature he loved. An alcoholic loner - ever since his wife died of diabetes, another victim of the poor life choices being made on their grim northern housing estate - Joseph goes through life with his fists balled up, picking fights with everyone and everything: after the dog incident, he's seen in swift order forcing a noisy youth in his local pub to fellate the snooker cue he's been waving around, taking a sledgehammer to a defenceless shed, and then, in a particularly comical eruption of pointless aggression, headbutting the wooden boards placed over a broken shop window he himself had put through only hours before. In the immortal words of Vic Reeves' Big Night Out, he wouldn't let it lie.

Joseph is, evidently, a savage beast, a raging bull of a man - which is why it comes as a surprise when he seeks shelter one afternoon, not in a china shop, as we might fear, but in a charity outlet, where he nonetheless encounters somebody who appears every bit as fragile as Wedgwood's finest. This is Hannah (Olivia Colman), a devout Christian who watches over the shop's assortment of discards and hand-me-downs much as a shepherdess would over her flock. That Hannah extends her charity to Joseph - praying for him and a sick friend of his, providing him with clothes suitable for a funeral - comes as something of a surprise, but then Hannah has somebody in her life who proves more abusive yet: an outwardly respectable husband (Eddie Marsan), prone to marking his territory by urinating on his wife's sleeping form when he comes home from the pub at night. Love him or cross several city blocks to avoid him, as you probably would, Joseph is what he is; this other thug is a hypocrite who conceals his dark desires and heinous abuses behind a nice car, a semi in the suburbs, and the unsettling veneers of Marsan's smile.

The perverse love triangle Considine has given us here feels in some ways like a masculine equivalent to Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, another notable recent British work fascinated - rather than repelled - by the animal behaviour it placed at its centre. The tyrannosaur of the title isn't, it turns out, Joseph: this scary monster is still very much pacing his particular cage. Yet from his lumbering, wearied gait, which is precisely that of a creature tired from decades of aggression, and from his neighbour's insistence on referring to him as "Captain Caveman" (even, unwisely, when Joseph reaches for his baseball bat), it's clear he's a mass of distinctly cro-magnon instincts and impulses, a relic of a time when drunken wifebeating was a national pastime.

Joseph's fisticuffs suggest a man perpetually at odds with the modern world, and possibly on the verge of extinction because of it. When Hannah first asks him what his name is, his response, emerging from the rack of dresses he's cowering behind, is "Robert De Niro", both a nod to all things Scorsese, and the choice of someone who hasn't set foot inside a cinema for the best part of two decades, oblivious to that star's descent into Meet the Parents-era softness. Elsewhere, Considine's self-penned script flirts with the verbose, falling foul of the old "show, don't tell" rule. It's one thing to have a wino friend of Joseph's refer to the local Pakistani population as "pack animals", and talk of his dreams of opening a zoo, but the writer-director tips his hand in having Marsan confront his wife with such lines as "Do I smell like a dead animal?" in the very next scene. Where the more experienced Arnold was able to smuggle in her imagery in the form of background stickers, pets and murals, Considine - as with many of his most memorable performances as an actor - can't resist blurting his out. The prehistoric resonances of that title grow only louder: everybody here is in the grip, in the jaws, of something terrible. But we get the point, and we get it early, and we get it over and over again.

Where Tyrannosaur can't be faulted, however, is in its performances. It is astonishing that Mullan can still find new ways of looking at and thinking through the hard man archetype - this one even has the same name as his alcoholic from 1998's My Name is Joe - yet even if Joseph's path to self-realisation ("I am not a good human being") is bumpier and less predictable, once again we marvel at the control the actor exerts in its portrait of an essentially uncontrollable man, the way there isn't a false word or gesture in this performance, how Mullan gets us to pull for a serial pooch-slayer. (His explanation of the title is sweetly chauvinist, with a perfectly timed, typically earthy punchline.)

The film's real revelation, though, is Colman. Denied the passive-aggressive moves of her mousy small-screen creations (Sophie in Peep Show, the PA in Twenty Twelve), she instead projects a core of steely inner strength beneath a battered and bruised exterior. This is what we might expect from one of life's fervent believers - a show of unshakeable faith, however grim the circumstances - and where Tyrannosaur is at its most surprising is in its utterly sincere, unironic representation of religion as a source of comfort at times of need. Hannah's fine with God; it's the men around her, His sons, who are the problem. At any rate, the charity worker's explosion of alcohol-induced rage at her husband comprises the single most dynamic and extraordinary ten minutes this actress has ever given us, and while there's some lovely stuff right out of the Colman comic wheelhouse as Hannah and Joseph sort through a ragbag of charity offerings destined to provide her with a whole new wardrobe, she also understands how to make moving and disturbing the final revelation of the extent to which she's been touched by the men around her.

This final twist of the knife may be too melodramatic for some, preceded as it is by a musical montage that - clearly owing a debt to Considine's old mucker Shane Meadows - looks an obvious stalling for time before things get really bleak, and unnecessary injection of a warmth the actors are more than capable of providing themselves. I also question whether even the most ardent of feminists might consider Tyrannosaur's prevailing downer on men somewhat de trop. (Meadows' films, larky and laddish as they can be, permit masculinity a far broader range: consider the varied array of father figures in A Room for Romeo Brass, still arguably Considine's finest 90 minutes of screentime.) Nevertheless, this remains a debut of a raw and raggedy power, and yet more proof - after Richard Ayoade's Submarine - that producers Warp Films are generally backing the right first-time filmmakers: ambassadors for a new and uncompromising form of British cinema, doing vital work in poking round - in Considine's case, excavating - those homes and gardens beyond the limited remit of the Home Counties. Tyrannosaur is a real turn up: it roars.

Tyrannosaur opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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