Dog Beat Dog in Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur

It’s been awhile since I watched this, but having revisited my notes and been so struck by what I saw, I wanted to look a bit more deeply into Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur, a heavy, washed-out drama that tracks a violent alcoholic’s relationship with an abused shopkeeper. Taking advantage of two incredibly strong lead performances by Peter Mullan and Olivia Colman, along with support from the never-more-loathed Eddie Marsan, Considine delves often unbearably into the collapse of faith and moral restraint.

Tyrannosaur begins at a turning point. Not for the first time, as is later learned, Peter Mullan’s drunken sot Joseph stumbles upon a metaphor that changes his perception of things. If only he didn’t have to be such a self-confessed, well, c-word, to figure it out the way he does. Joseph inhabits a perpetually drizzly northern England peopled by an equally desaturated populace who collectively keep their heads down to survive. If the future redemption telegraphed by the film’s opening is to come to pass, it will be a match strike in a strong wind. Only once that hope is built up does Considine’s film reveal just what side of the monochrome spectrum it is leaning on.

The story opens mere moments before Joseph reaches the nadir of his drink-a-day routine. After a spat at the pub, he furiously stomps his dog to death. Considine doesn’t have to dwell too long on the specifics of Joseph’s life to show that he lives for little else than getting drunk. And with years of brawls behind him, his propensity for violence has finally come home to roost. Regret sets in immediately, and he turns to the drink once again. Before this he functioned as well as could be expected. His only acquaintances are drinking buddies who are just as worse for the wear as he is. His dog may have been dumbly loyal, but at least it held an innocent regard for him. It counted on him and he let it down. A second outburst provokes a midnight beatdown by a group of younger bar-goers, and afterward he’s taken in by Olivia Colman’s Hannah, who harbors her own deep pain. But whereas Joseph lashes out, Hannah internalizes her pain and seeks solace in prayer. Joseph’s initial reaction is to heap scorn on her, having no conception of Christian submission and seeing her meekness as weakness. It’s clear, however, that he is struck by her since he finds more excuses to seek her out.

Mullan makes the most of his slack-jawed, perma-squint appearance when Joseph begins to show an inkling of self-awareness. Looking both menacing and lost in thought at once, he perfectly captures Joseph’s inner anguish at acting like an animal. First it’s Joseph’s dog that is a brainless barking ball of hair. After the stomping, who is he to point fingers? When his despicable yob neighbor Bod threatens him with his pit bull, Joseph completely ignores the verbal onslaught, looking only into the dog’s eyes and feeling pity. Leave it to Mullan and Considine to pull off this scene with a straight face, where the daddy issue-suffering Joseph expresses sympathy for a bullied dog and backs down from a fight. Hannah, who Joseph can tell is also hurting, seems to have found an outlet in her faith, but as he gets closer to learning the source (and extent) of her wounds, he is only more perplexed by her tolerance. Soon enough he becomes fearful for her. Seeing his interest in Hannah change from curiosity to guardianship is the closest thing to redemption Considine will allow. No matter how deep her faith, Hannah has a breaking point, and Joseph is adamant that she does not reach it.

Considine paces things so leisurely that when violence does erupt, it lashes out at the audience as much as the characters do to each other. It’s impulsive like Joseph himself, and ultimately unsatisfying, just as Considine intends. The speed pitches up and down with Mullen’s stride, and one scene that finds him invading a home, holding his fist in the air the same way you would see a SWAT team member holding a submachine gun during a raid, will have your blood pumping faster than any Bourne movie.

The generally quiet nature of the production also serves to keep it from descending into melodrama. When all is said and done, Tyrannosaur is a harrowing reminder of the lizard brain lurking under our consciences, made all the more disturbing for its restraint. Unsettling it may be, but Mullan’s Joseph and Eddie Marsan’s disgusting James are cut from the same cloth, both out of control but seemingly anxious to keep things in order. Calmly directed the action may be, but the subject matter is unforgiving. The faint of heart may as well leave Tyrannosaur behind altogether in the hopes that they never need to hear its lesson. The cycle of abuse represented within is certainly not meant to be taken as traditional entertainment, and Hannah’s final ghastly admission of abuse is enough to raise the gorge of even the sweetest person. The permutations of abuse, distrust, and fear also make it incredibly difficult to vilify even a horrendous person like James, who shares Joseph’s same trait of mixing menace and anxiety into one stare.

There is a stray subplot involving the death of one of Joseph’s friends that serves to illustrate the lighter side of his personality, but the clichéd wake montage scene it inspires just doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the low key surroundings. However, it is the only scene where Joseph is shown in a youthful light, so it could be argued that it is necessary to show how much he has buried his real personality. His budding friendship with Hannah should be enough to show what lies beneath his crusty exterior, but seeing Mullan flip a hat onto his head and bust some moves is a quick burst of irreverence that perfectly contrasts the violent impulses he seemingly can’t control.

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