One of the most special things that can happen to a film fan is to be completely side-swiped by a film that we expected little of or knew nothing about. Most of the time the surprise is a pleasant one, the kind of surprise that comes from finding a funny comedy or a good action movie that no-one else has seen. But with Tyrannosaur, the debut film from actor Paddy Considine, the experience is much more harrowing, leaving you nothing short of completely raw.
The obvious and rather trite thing to do at this point would be to draw up Alfred Hitchcock's old quote that actors should be treated like cattle, issue a half-hearted warning about the perils of actors getting behind the camera, and then patronise Considine for having done so well. But the fact is that he has really done his homework, having learned much from his collaborations with Shane Meadows. If one had to draw a comparison, it is probably closest to Dead Man's Shoes in its brutal violence and unconventional depiction of revenge. But Tyrannosaur is more than Shane Meadows-lite: it stands like its main character, alone and deeply terrifying.
When Roger Ebert reviewed the film, he remarked that "this isn't the kind of movie that even has hope enough to contain a message. There is no message, only the reality of these wounded personalities." He couldn't have put it better. Tyrannosaur is a film which draws no quarter, offering no answers, let alone easy ones, to the problems faced by its characters or the society that produced them. Hope, optimism, sentimentality, generic conviction - any way out is refused, dismissed as impossible and out of reach. Even calling it nihilistic feels too straightforward.
Tyrannosaur is something of a rarity in today's filmmaking culture: the product of someone doggedly determined to do it their way. Just as the characters do not resolve their problems with a feel-good ending, or laugh them off with a smile, so you get the sense of Considine really putting his foot down at every stage of production, resisting the urge to bow to commercial pressure or retreat to the comfort zone of convention. At a time when films are increasingly not just written but directed by committee, his determination is commendable even before we examine the film artistically.
The film is completely unapologetic in its realistic depiction of violence. The carnage on show is not the balletic bloodbaths of Sam Peckinpah or high-end comic book films like Kick-Ass. Instead it is as real and as horrible as Kill List, earning its 18 certificate in the first five minutes. At certain moments, such as the killing of dogs at either end of the film, the camera turns away, mirroring our flinching and repulsion at what unfolds. By starting with something so horrible, we are forced to confront these characters and their problems head on, with no safety net and no way out.
Tyrannosaur is a film about three deeply damaged people, all searching for a form of release or redemption while feeling all the time that they are either unworthy of it, unable to attain it, or alienated by what society expects of reformed characters. Joseph (Peter Mullan) is desperate to get out of his spiral of self-destructive rage, but is so far gone that he increasingly knows no other way to live. He picks fights with the boys in the pub, kicks his dog and bashes his shed because he is at a loss of what else to do.
Hannah (Olivia Colman) is a kind and compassionate woman who is assaulted and abused by her husband James (Eddie Marsan). He protests that the way he reacts isn't the real him, and yet his jealousy and possessiveness manifest themselves in horrendous ways, from urinating on her while she sleeps to beating her up and raping her. Hannah struggles to reconcile her faith to the harsh realities of her life - there is nothing cosy in her position as a Christian.
What makes Tyrannosaur so rewarding is that it keeps wrong-footing us. It doesn't do this in the manner of Super, which kept serving up misjudged or awkward moments on account of not knowing what it really was. But its choice of character developments throw us off the scent, reinforcing the film's desire to reflect life as it is rather than offer hope of how it should be. Our two main characters don't end up together, or take the young boy into their care. The film is closest to The Arbor in its reams of ambiguity, as we are left wondering how well the characters really knew each other, or how much they even cared for each other.
It is also refreshing to see religion, and more specifically religious faith, depicted in a manner which is utterly free of caricature. Perhaps no British film since Whistle Down the Wind has approached the issue of personal belief with such a steady hand, resisting the urge either to unconditionally accept it or, more commonly, dismiss it as empty, irrational or a waste of time.
The film depicts how hard it is to be a Christian without falling into the trap of many modern Christians, who foolishly claim to being persecuted in 'their own country'. Hannah is by no means perfect, being just as capable of violent outbursts as Joseph is. She is only in control when James is not around to torment her, and while she feels drawn to helping Joseph it is never clear how comfortable she is being around him. Joseph may start and remain a cynic - there is no moment on the road to Damascus for him. But the release of emotion in the charity shop, and his kindness towards Hannah, suggests some kind of spiritual impulse, even if he refuses to acknowledge it.
In hindsight it was good that Tyrannosaur was helmed by someone with acting experience, because the film depends so strongly on the three main characters being completely believable. And Considine delivers on all three, directing with passion and integrity. Peter Mullan is great, possessing so much texture and nuance in his face and managing to appear threatening without simply making us run for cover. His is a compelling threat, and we are drawn to it like moths to a flame.
Eddie Marsan is rapidly corning the market in threatening supporting roles, turning in a performance up there with his menacing turn in Philip Ridley's Heartless or his neurotic driving instructor in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky. Most striking, however, is Olivia Colman, who is quite simply a revelation. Having gotten used to seeing her in mother hen-type roles in shows like Peep Show and Green Wing, we are completely unprepared for the emotional range and depth of this performance. At the very least she doesn't just let the make-up do the acting for her in the difficult scenes: she is constantly working hard and deserves every accolade she has received.
Considine's direction in Tyrannosaur feels meticulous without being overbearing. He has made clear in several interviews that the film is in no way autobiographical, and it makes sense therefore for the film to lack a particular visual stamp in the way that Meadows' works might. The film still looks amazing, with gritty cinematography from Submarine's Erik Wilson and very good compositions on the part of Considine. But running through everything is a resistance to design: the camera is there to observe, not to judge or create an impression of reality.
Tyrannosaur is a gripping and gut-wrenching debut, and one of the best films of 2011. Its completely lack of visual or narrative compromise will be a test of viewers' mettle, but like Kill List it earns the right to be this brutal, being horrible and repulsive in all the right ways and for all the right reasons. Considine has the makings of a great actors' director, creating three compelling characters within a genuine piece of cinema. It is an extraordinary first feature film which lingers long after its final frame.