Opening scenes don’t get much more challenging than Tyrannosaur’s, in which Peter Mullan’s protagonist, gripped by rage at some unseen insult, fatally kicks his dog. The act is no less disturbing for mostly taking place offscreen, and the unthinking brutality on Mullan’s face is as upsetting as any image the film could show anyway. Though Mullan looks and behaves like a monster, Tyrannosaur, the feature directorial debut of actor Paddy Considine, then asks viewers to care about him as he slowly tries to reclaim the humanity that he may no longer remember trading away.
The film doesn’t provide him with a clear path to redemption, if redemption is even possible, beyond suggesting that in order to stop being a bad man, he first has to recognize just how bad he’s become. As an unemployed widower, he has plenty of time to reflect on the subject. Ping-ponging between rage and regret, Mullan beats up some youths for no real reason, then stumbles into a thrift shop, where he strikes up a conversation with born-again shopkeeper Olivia Colman, who asks if he’d like her to pray for him as easily as if offering him a cup of tea. She glows with goodness, and her spiritual assurance makes her a shining contrast to Mullan. But as their friendship grows, it becomes apparent that she has troubles of her own: a marriage to a man (Eddie Marsan) who isn’t what he seems, and a habit of drinking herself to sleep that sometimes spills over to daylight hours.
In bare description, Tyrannosaur sounds like a particularly extreme work of British working-class miserablism, but Considine and his cast have no use for comfortable distance created by cliché. In another film, Mullan would play a villain who enters the scene just long enough to cause trouble. Considine stays with him, making sure we know him too well to see him only as a villain, showing how much his own behavior—past and present—torments him, and how deep into his awful habits he’s sunk. Talking to a vicious dog—dogs haunt the film—he says “It’s not your fault, buddy.” But Tyrannosaur doesn’t let him off the hook as easily. Mullan mourns his wife, tends to a dying friend, and fills his days with cheap amusement in the absence of a job, but the film provides many hints he wasn’t such a nice person before things went south, either.
Where Mullan plays a man too hard to live in the world, Colman plays a woman too soft for it. She retreats to religion, and when religion won’t serve, she turns to alcohol. When neither works, she simply collapses. With Mullan, she finds a tenuous sense of balance, but events threaten to end it. Colman gives a less brash performance than Mullan, but it’s no less impressive, and both are complemented by Eddie Marsan’s turn as Colman’s husband, whose behavior behind closed doors doesn’t match up with his soft features and diminutive stature. Considine directs with the confidence of a veteran, giving his actors room to work while letting an ominous, overcast mood hang over almost every scene. But he also keeps offering slivers of hope that the mood could lift, and that if the characters look out for each other, they might someday not have to live in fear of something horrible happening, or the horrible things they might do.