“An animal can only take so much humiliation,” explains Joseph (Peter Mullan), “before it snaps, fights back.” Our protagonist is referring to a neighbourhood dog that eventually attacks a child, but the implication is clear from Tyrannosaur’s opening scene, in which Joseph, in one of his alcoholic rages, kicks a dog, his own dog, to death: Joseph’s the animal here, and his is a fury with no coherent target upon which to vent itself. He’s been beaten by life and beats back blindly whenever that fury surges. He’s not an easy guy to be with, and Tyrannosaur isn’t an easy film to sit through, but I think there are at least some of you reading this who’ll find a sober sort of reward from seeing Joseph’s story unfold in this earnest, well-crafted exercise in British miserablism, actor Paddy Conisdine’s feature debut as writer/director.
The setting is somewhere in Northern England. Joseph’s unemployed, a widower wading in the deep end of middle-age and frequently deep in his cups. He hangs out in public houses even though everyone seems to piss him off. An altercation leaves him hiding in a thrift store. He crouches behind a rack of sweaters, trembling, clutching a pool cue, tells the store’s clerk that he’s Robert De Niro. She prays for him. Hannah (Olivia Coleman) seems kind and gentle and big on Jesus. Joseph has none of it. “God’s not my fucking daddy,” he snarls at her. “My daddy was a cunt, but at least he knew he was a cunt.” So much for conversion. Yet this encounter will prompt changes for Joseph and Hannah both. They become close after Hannah flees home following a particularly sad and evil scene of domestic rape. Later you might get to wondering if maybe Joseph couldn’t reach out to Hannah until he saw her all beaten up. At one point Hannah says she feels safe with him, but how do you gauge such a statement when it comes from someone already so shattered by abuse?
Tyrannosaur’s abundant sadism is somewhat balanced by Considine’s sensitivity to behavior and space, to interiors that sooner or later darken, though the penumbra brings with it rich greens and golds. His film is above all a showcase for Mullan, an old hand at stunned, wounded brutes who wield cruelty as an emotional shield (My Name is Joe—again!), and Coleman, whose complexity and vulnerability are nothing short of a revelation.