Gosh. Having been repelled, repulsed and revolted by the impact-based violence in Kill List and Drive in recent weeks, I put myself through more punishment this afternoon at a screening of Paddy Considine’s feature debut Tyrannosaur, which opens at selected cinemas on Friday. I appear to be on a strong meat diet.
If you’ve read anything about this film – or indeed seen Considine’s Bafta-winning 2007 short Dog Altogether, from which Tyrannosaur sprang – you’ll know that it comes from a deep love of Alan Clarke, Ken Loach and Nil By Mouth, and the kind of social realism that we, in this country, still excel at. That it stars Peter Mullan, who not only essayed one of British cinema’s most compellingly real and complex alcoholics in Loach’s My Name Is Joe, but has directed his own vital slices of life in Orphans, The Magdelene Sisters and Neds, merely adds to the sense of occasion. Considine’s debut was always going to be worth looking at, but the assurance and skill with with he delivers is astonishing. I would say that this is essential viewing. But, again, and I’m going to get sick of saying this soon, it will not be for everyone.
Unlike Drive, which is compelling as much for its style as its story, Tyrannosaur is essentially a portal into the world next door. And by that, I’m not talking about “class tourism”, for its horrors emerge not just from the forgotten Leeds estate where Mullen’s isolated bruiser skulks, but from the comfortable, middle-class milieu where Olivia Colman’s good-hearted Christian charity-shop worker hides her own story behind net curtains, a drive and a front garden. Considine has obviously grown up listening to, and observing, people around him – as well as watching and digesting the films of those that he admires, who grew up doing the same – and it’s there in his dialogue, and in his characters. When an Irish rogue sidles up to Mullan’s Joseph in the pub, you sense that Considine has been in similar pubs with similar rogues. (Joseph, by the way, has been named after the Bible, and yet he is a violently lapsed Catholic who has, he claims, lost his faith in God; Colman’s Hannah clings to her faith – it is implied that her awful husband, Eddie Marsan’s James, is also a Christian, with another Biblical name – but it is severely tested.)
I should also say that this is not the standard, handheld documentary approach to real life. Considine frames the ugliness beautifully sometimes: a close up of Joseph’s head as he rolls over on the grass after a beating, a blade of grass stuck to his skin; the incongruous but seemingly meaningful crease in the framed photograph of Joseph’s deceased wife on which the camera alights more than once; his nose squashed comically but still threateningly against the safety glass in the Post Office. It’s sometimes too easy to shoot the grim grimly. Not here.
The three protagonists are broken. Has society broken them? If so, their contrasting backgrounds stop that being a simple answer. In many ways, one of them has been broken by another. But what interests Considine is whether or not we can be mended, or whether we can mend ourselves. Joseph is first seen in an impotent, Red Stripe-fuelled rage about something unspecified that has already happened inside a bookmakers. It was probably something and nothing, but that’s all it takes. His rage finds disturbing physical release in the street when he effectively attacks himself, by attacking something he loves. This is a devastating beginning to a film, and one that has permanent resonance through the story to its even more sickening, circular denouement, but Tyrannosaur starts as it means to go on, and should be admired for the unflinching commitment with which it treats its subject. For a film about violence, it pulls no punches. (I don’t want to give any details away – although this aspect is hinted at in the trailer – but the violence is not just meted out to people.)
You will think me a namby-pamby milksop for feeling more pain for the animals in this film than for the human beings; certainly, the whimpering of a dog affects me on a different level to the whimpering of an actor, as the dog did not ask to, or agree to be an actor, whereas the man or lady did. But the first act of violence is dramatically justified, and it’s a fact that many serial killers display their earliest signs of disturbance by harming animals, including pets, so it’s incredibly effective in conveying the darkness inside Joseph. We’ve seen Mullan play this type before, but the possibility for his redemption is clear even at the start, even if he himself can’t see it, or even contemplate it. “Nobody’s safe with me,” he tells Hannah, when she says that she feels safe with him.
The threat of violence is as tough to bear as the actual acts in this film. Joseph could go off at any minute. He knows it – often seen pacing on his own, or talking himself down, or tapping himself on the forehead with a baseball bat to reduce the possibility of eruption. At one point, he smashes the bat down on a sofa, and refrains from doing it to something or someone that it might not bounce back off. It is from these glimpses of self-control that our hope springs. Joseph is a noisy neighbour, and he has noisy neighbours. This is an everyday problem with which we can all sympathise; they are the media’s favourite “neighbours from hell” albeit they are already in hell. They exist on the edge of polite society and probably imagine, like Joseph does, that their calamities, frustrations and conflicts do not occur in the “posh” estate where Hannah and James live. But they would be wrong. They just don’t occur in the street.
I don’t give star ratings on this blog, but if I did, I might find my way going right up to five. Although as a viewing experience, and as an entertainment, it’s draining, gruelling and deeply disturbing, Tyrannosaur is vital filmmaking. If this is Paddy Considine’s first album, imagine what his second album might be like. Difficult, maybe, but nobody said real life was going to be easy.