A version of this review originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
There are bleak films and then there’s “Tyrannosaur,” a movie so dark it’s like a cinematic black hole, a film from which no light escapes. Just how dark is it? The most cheerful scene in this movie is a funeral.
By the end, “Tyrannosaur” arrives at a deeply moving place, but before it arrives at that deeply moving place the viewer must endure one of the tougher sits of any movie in recent memory. Put this one alongside “Requiem For a Dream” and “Funny Games” on the Mount Rushmore of One-Timers, movies you have to see once, but can’t imagine seeing twice. It’s a powerful film you can’t shake and won’t want to revisit anytime soon.
It tells the story of two desperately sad people in Leeds in the UK, a man and a woman, united by their shared sense of helplessness. Joseph (Peter Mullan) is an unemployed widower whose anger management problem is exacerbated by his drinking problem. As the movie begins, he’s already in the middle of a profane tirade for the ages. Out of his mind with rage, he unthinkingly kicks his own dog to death. Then he brings the dog’s body home and sits quietly, stroking its paw. There is more to this man than meets the eye.
Still, whatever hurt is driving him, he’s still a fairly repulsive person. Joseph’s mere presence onscreen makes the hairs on your arm stand on end; he’s unpredictably violent and incredibly scary. You never know what will set him off next. Watching him prowl through the streets of Leeds is like watching someone stick a bullet in a revolver, spin the chamber and start pulling the trigger as fast as he can. The movie keeps pushing Joseph, waiting for the explosion.
One day, Joseph winds up hiding in a thrift store run by Hannah (Olivia Colman). She’s a religious woman and she takes pity on him. Her shop is filled with perfectly functional items society’s deemed worthless and discarded; perhaps Hannah sees a similar quality in Joseph as he cowers in a coat rack and spews bile at her. Despite his complete refusal to believe in God, or to even tolerate the views of someone else who does — “God ain’t my fucking Daddy,” he sneers at one point — Joseph continues to return to Hannah’s shop. But of course he does: he has nowhere else to go. And for reasons that only later become clear, she continues to welcome him back. They have something to do with the fact that she’s married to a man named James (played in a terrifyingly cold performance by Eddie Marsan) who is outwardly lovely and charming but so cruel to Hannah in private that he makes Joseph look like Mother Teresa.
The darkness of the subject matter, which involves violence against women, children, and animals — yes animals, plural, Joseph’s dead dog is just the beginning — would make this film almost unwatchable if not for the absolutely mesmerizing performances of the lead actors. As the film reveals more and more of Joseph and Hannah’s secrets, Mullan and Colman continue to show us new sides of their characters. With his deeply grizzled face and a voice that’s just a shade higher than a tracheotomy patient, Mullan oozes menace and sadness in equal measure. And Colman takes a really difficult role — full of pain and victimization — and turns it into something really powerful. She finds the humanity in this inhumane world.
“Tyrannosaur” is the first film directed by British actor Paddy Considine, who’s probably best known in the United States for his supporting roles in films like “Hot Fuzz” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” (he was the journalist Bourne was trying to protect). “Tyrannosaur” is primarily a film about performance and character so there’s not a lot of room for visual pyrotechnics. But Considine has a knack for knowing where to put his camera. Consider the scene where Hannah’s husband has come to her, pleading forgiveness after he’s treated her badly. She sits in the bed, he lays with his head buried in her lap. The camera sits level with Hannah; we can see her face but James can’t, so that when Hannah sounds utterly sincere saying that she forgives him, we can read the truth in her blank, unmoved expression.
Considine has a way with simply effective imagery, too. He lets the visuals speak for characters who have a hard time opening up to one another. Nothing the reticent Joseph could say about his dead wife would explain their relationship more effectively than the picture on his mantle — ripped in half, then reassembled and lovingly framed. Joseph is a man lost to his own personal darkness. In one particularly striking moment, the security gate of Hannah’s store closes in the foreground, as Joseph stands waiting behind it. As the gate lowers he’s literally engulfed by blackness.
I would have a hard time arguing with someone who said “Tyrannosaur” is similarly overwhelmed by its unquenchable bleakness. Portions are so oppressively harsh they almost verge on parody. But Considine and his great cast never let things go over the top. And I have to tell you, when Joseph and Hannah come to a place of understanding late in the film — not quite happiness, but as close as these two people can probably ever get — and she tells him that she feels safe with him, I was incredibly moved. It’s not an easy film to sit through, but it’s worth it for moments like that.