Tyrannosaur opens with our protagonist, Joseph (Peter Mullan), kicking his dog to death off-screen in a fit of drunken rage. It’s a warning flag for queasy viewers that things won’t be pretty here, but those who stay just a bit longer come to see his immediate regret over the matter. He is a widower who hurts the things he loves, a man who knows the cost of his actions and has yet to change his ways.
Joseph doesn’t scare Hannah (Olivia Colman), though, in whose thrift shop he seeks refuge after picking one fight too many. She offers to pray for him and he all but spits in her face, but Hannah perseveres, because with an abusive husband at home, James (Eddie Marsan), she’s known worse and will only continue to do so. Without his dog, Joseph has nothing; without her God, Hannah would too; and against all odds, they have each other -- just as friends, although that might be too much for James to stand…
The writing and directorial debut of actor Paddy Considine (he played a detective and Colman a desk cop in 2007’s brilliant Hot Fuzz), this is a film filled with raw nerves and harsh circumstances, as unrelentingly bleak a redemption story as they come. His approach to the performances is a grimy, naturalistic one, while his screenplay manages to be remarkably tidy, with few, if any, scenes going by without revealing something crucial about the character of these people, about judgments passed and futures uncertain. Tidy is not the same as easy, though; some assaults take place out of sight, but their emotional toll is never out of mind.
Mullan and Marsan play like-minded menaces, with the former wielding anger against the world and the latter against his wife, forces to be reckoned with who seem destined to cross paths. We’ve seen Mullen as a grump before, and Marsan as a hot-head, but that stops neither from coming off as convincingly furious and flawed here; one hits like a sledgehammer, the other like a straight razor, and both seem just about too far gone for salvation. As Joseph narrates, he offers up an axiom -- “An animal can only take so much humiliation before it snaps” -- that doubles as a prophecy for confrontations to come. And caught in the middle of it all is Colman, a well-meaning woman who masks her pain with heartbreaking ease. One scene with her sobbing in the back of her shop before going out to greet customers with nothing but a smile seems to say it all about her terrific performance, but there’s even more to her Hannah than meets the eye.
In my mind, Considine only gets particularly gratuitous toward the very end of a film that is otherwise relatively spare in its presentation of the grimy details of these three miserable lives. However, just where those lives and relationships end up by then doesn’t betray the mood while also offering the slightest glimmer of hope. Tyrannosaur is like a bruise: black and blue and more deeply felt than it initially seems.