Editor's note: This review originally ran at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. "Tyrannosaur" opens in New York on Friday.
Paddy Considine, an actor who launched his career in Shane Meadows' "A Room For Romeo Brass," makes an assured step behind the camera with "Tyrannosaur," his first feature. The discomfiting story of a middle-aged drunkard overcoming his booze-fueled woes, Considine announces his directorial vision with a morbid character piece sustained by two remarkably intense performances. Following up his acclaimed short "Dog Altogether," Considine's film strikes an alarming note in its very first scene and sustains that uneasiness throughout.
As the lonely grump Joseph, Peter Mullan revels in the opportunity to play a boisterous widower whose inebriated rantings obscure the deep isolation he experiences every day. Over time, Joseph generates a hesitant friendship with Hannah (Olivia Colman), a friendly Christian woman and clothing store owner who he meets when he stumbles into her shop in the wake of a bar fight. Thrown by Hannah's unreasonable kindness, he turns to her for moral and spiritual support when a close friend passes away. But it eventually becomes clear that Hannah has her own problems, including a hyper-abusive and sexually demanding alcoholic husband (Eddie Marsan).
Once Considine establishes these two grief-stricken lives, the actors use the opportunity to turn in convincingly sympathetic portraits of mutually wounded souls. Mullan is particular effective: His constant grimace suggests Clint Eastwood's scowling veteran in "Gran Torino," but Joseph has a more overt bark. Within the first minute of the movie, he establishes a figure of immense tragedy after he kills his dog in a drunken rage, then wanders the streets of Leeds with the dead animal in his arms.
The central trick of "Tyrannosaur" involves a compelling role reversal, in which the aggressively faithless Joseph ("God ain't my fucking daddy") takes on the responsibility of helping Hannah cope with her troublesome marriage. However, all good intentions are thwarted by their shared inability to communicate. While the movie itself does not appear overtly religious, it engages the prospect of secular redemption for those who are unable to properly express their frustrations. The title refers to Joseph's condescending nickname for his late, heavyset wife, but could equally apply to his irrepressible outbursts. He only begins to control himself when he sees the same ugly tendencies reflected in someone else.
The thematic coherence of "Tyrannosaur" justifies its pervasive gloominess, although some scenes are clumsily constructed. A nonexplicit (but nonetheless brutal) rape scene involving Hannah and her husband — which ends, for reasons revealed later, in medias res — plays as if it was predominantly designed to make viewers uneasy. Later, Considine explains the incident with a rudimentary plot twist that redefines Hannah's behavior in ways that stretch plausibility.
Nevertheless, Mullan and Colman generate enough power to overcome Considine's boundaries as a storyteller and he makes the best of his cast by letting their downtrodden expressions generate the movie's emotional core. Although "Tyrannosaur" zigzags before reaching an off-kilter happy ending, Considine cleverly riffs on audience expectations with Joseph's final revenge against the world, a gory act of ludicrous dimensions. That scene, followed by an unreasonably upbeat conclusion, gets to the core of the writer-director's ability to create an atmosphere of extraordinary uncertainty, in which both Joseph's moral convictions and his sanity remain intriguingly open-ended.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Considine isn't that well-known to U.S. audiences and the movie's relentlessly grim outlook limits its commercial appeal. But enough praise for Mullan's physical commitment to a gut-wrenching role may help it find an appreciative audience in limited release.
criticWIRE grade: A-