By Jacob Mertens.

The title of Paddy Considine’s film Tyrannosaur can’t help but call to mind a vicious rampage of death and destruction. As the audience witnesses the opening moments, they immediately associate the prehistoric creature’s savagery with Peter Mullan’s Joseph, who rages outside of a bar and inadvertently kicks his dog to death. As the film moves forward, Joseph broods moodily, painfully disturbed by his slum surroundings and barely able to express his thoughts and feelings without the use or threat of violence. As the film introduces Hannah (played by Olivia Colman), we begin to realize that Joseph’s violent disposition deceives the audience into believing that slow burning dramatic scenes could well explode into frenzied onslaughts of brutality at any moment.

Olivia Colman stars as Hannah in Optimum Releasing's Tyrannosaur (2011)

The film uses its early scenes to establish a tension throughout the film, and Joseph must first accept Hannah’s kindness towards him, then decide a course of action when he learns of her husband’s domestic abuse. Joseph narrowly avoids confronting the husband outright, and as Hannah stays at his small house he softens under her care. However, Hannah has yet to return to her house to retrieve her possessions, and we sense that Joseph will eventually need to rekindle his ebbing malice in order to protect her. Additionally, Joseph strains to avoid outright violence with an irascible neighbor, who continually threatens Joseph with an overly agitated Pit Bull. Both of these narrative strands necessitate eventual action, but Joseph somehow avoids taking that last step into interminable darkness. Consequently, the film manages to subvert our expectations, because when we are presented with an inherently violent protagonist who establishes a bond with a woman who has been abused, narrative conventions insist on some kind of causal vigilante killing spree.

While the film does end with a gesture of violence, it does not happen the way the audience expects it to. Joseph’s confrontations become indirect, he expresses rage in surprising ways, and the film feels less formulaic and more disturbing because of it. Without spoiling the major scenes in which Tyrannosaur actually pulls off this subversion of expectation, I will say that I was astonished by the ease of its delivery. Allow me, instead, to illustrate a small detail that exemplifies the film’s careful nuance.

Peter Mullan stars as Joseph in Optimum Releasing's Tyrannosaur (2011)

In the beginning of the film, we see an extended scene of Joseph repeatedly hitting a bat against his forehead. Because we spend a significant amount of time focusing on the bat, it becomes a significant prop, and we can easily assume that Joseph will eventually use this bat in order to harm someone. Later, when Joseph’s neighbor uses his Pit Bull to terrorize his own stepson, Joseph storms into his bedroom and pulls the bat out from beside his bed, ready to march back out into the street. In screenwriting terms, you would call this a plant and a payoff. However, instead of engaging in a potentially climatic moment, Joseph stands in his bedroom, inert and indecisive. It seems that Joseph does not know how to use his inherent aggression in a noble way, and the film uses this character flaw to aggravate his guilt when the boy is mauled by the Pit Bull in a later scene.

As these scenes demonstrate, Tyrannosaur repeatedly uses the idea of overt violence in order to substantiate dramatic nuance. The opening moments of the film brace the audience, and the resultant run time continually exploits that initial primacy of Joseph murdering his own dog. At the same time, the film challenges the audience’s shallow characterization of events. In fact, we even learn that the title, which seems to relate to Joseph’s plodding character, actually refers to his deceased wife, suggesting that much of his anger stems from that grief. If you can get past a few moments of squeamishness, the film reveals a thoughtful and understated character study, while establishing an environment that fuels animosity. In the end, you truly feel the futility and inevitability of Joseph’s fatigued fury.

Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.

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