Within the very first minute of “Tyrannosaur,” the new film from Paddy Considine, a dog is brutally beat to death. So begins a gauntlet of torture and demeaning cruelty that lasts up until the twenty minute mark, when a dutiful wife passes out on her couch, and her husband enters and drunkenly urinates on her. Apparently the title “Another Happy Day” was taken.
The dog-killer in question is Joseph, down-and-out in the slums of Yorkshire, who hasn’t been able to emerge from his drunken stupor since the passing of his wife. However, there are hints throughout that this wasn’t exactly much of a romantic union. Joseph has a reasonable, health-related explanation for her passing, but the fact he totes a baseball bat around with him from time to time casts doubt.
When we see Joseph stumble out of the pub at the start of “Tyrannosaur,” it’s got the stink of routine; less familiar behaviour is when he shares time with Hannah, who runs a knick-knack thrift shop on the edge of town. Hannah, a dowdy, conservative type, doesn’t humor him so much as withstand being in his claws. She has compassion for his unfocused rage and the look of recognition that crosses her face when Joseph cruelly responds to her platitudes suggests she’ herself has confronted similar monsters.
We soon learn she may actually live with one. James is a pigheaded bull, a snarling, angry little man with twinkly sweet eyes and a soft voice that soon turns abusive. James is also married to Hannah, which means his ferocious, petty brutality has an outlet. He speaks softly and curtly, and seems to regard his marriage as one of convenience, specifically his own. When she won’t participate in sex, he’ll either demean her or take it for himself, silencing her protestations with a bout of violence.
“Tyrannosaur” mostly plays like a kitchen-sink drama, but when the ferocity of Joseph and James bubbles over, you can’t help but anticipate the clash. This is dank social realism, extras with yellowed teeth, bar rooms choked with cigarette smoke, and yet you can’t but wonder how and when these two beasts will lock horns, kaiju style. James’ nastiness stems from having a target, but Joseph’s is more organic, more genuine.
What “Tyrannosaur” does so well is it embodies Yorkshire as a plucky, angry character — every scene features the cackling of a rebellious teen, and there’s always the fear that one of them will be waiting around the corner, brick in hand. But its narrative also gives a twofold payoff: the slums where Joseph resides are quite different, and far more dangerous than the rainy outskirts where Hannah works the counter. But to see Hannah’s quaint suburban living situation, which earns Joseph’s sneer, is to see an elegant cover for a thoroughly unpleasant living situation.
However, the film crescendos in an entirely unpredictable manner, and first-time director Paddy Considine side-steps the cheap audience release of a showdown in favor of an intriguing subversion of social realist dramas built upon broken relationships. “Tyrannosaur,” which earns its title from a cruel name Joseph would call his wife, centers on that difficulty, that temptation to deal with conflict in violence, and how it frays our relationships. Considine can’t help but make the third-act rookie mistake of doubling-up on the tragedy, and there’s one specific character for whom merely turning towards the camera botches a graceful dramatic beat.
But as Joseph, Peter Mullan is a dragon, a bubbling cauldron of dangerousness, spitting out resentment and rage in a way that suggests a strange self-awareness. An early moment when Joseph buries himself under a discount wardrobe suggests what we know about the fear in his eyes. As James, Eddie Marsan isn’t nearly as intimidating, and there are small moments during his most violent scenes where a well-placed flinch tells you everything you need to know about his ugliness. But it’s Olivia Colman who represents the heart of “Tyrannosaur.” As put-upon Hannah, she radiates warmth and understanding, and it’s only through the strength of her character that we understand her subtle evolution, from healing, to merely surviving. In the face of the beast, “Tyrannosaur” argues, the latter can be more difficult than the former. [A-]