Tyrannosaur (Considine, 2011)

Olivia Colman as Hannah

This is the reason I go the Toronto Film Festival every year. This. Oh, getting to see some of the studio releases or masters of world cinema a few weeks (or months) before Joe Suburbia is nice, but it is nothing compared to walking into a film that you scheduled because of the time slot or the program description and walking out blown away by a film you know you might not ever have seen.

Some years, the magic happens early—I fell in love with Persepolis and An Education on my first day or two of their respective years. Sometimes you go through the whole festival and think, “It’s not happening this year.” And then it does. Lourdes was the last film I screened at the festival in 2009.  I was heading to the rush line to give away my ticket to Seraphine in 2008 (I had a headache and slight fever) and decided on impulse to give it fifteen minutes….Sometimes circumstances just conspire to get you to the film you need to see.

Tyrannosaur wasn’t even on my original agenda for the 2011 Festival. Drive went off sale earlier in the advanced ticketing process, which meant I got an alternate film for that time slot, which meant I  had already seen Chicken With Plums when Friday rolled around. I picked Tyrannosaur because the catalog blurb mentioned that one of the characters was a Christian.

I had a discussion last year with a friend who is a lesbian, and we commiserated that when it comes to films, gays and Christians face some similar problems. Rarely, if ever, are characters just incidentally Christian (or lesbian). As a result the gamut of characters we get embodying a segment of the population is pretty limited. They are too often stock figures, seldom complex human beings.

Not so, Hannah. Her Christianity is not incidental–within two minutes of meeting the main character she is praying for him–but neither is it one dimensional. Writer/director Paddy Considine told an audience at TIFF that some of the emotions from the film are drawn from his own life, notably the anger he sometimes felt at his mother’s faith and the subsequent realization that she has a larger heart than he knew.

It is probably to the film’s improvement that the emotions towards and ideas prompted by his mother appear to get distributed over two characters in the film. Hannah has the faith, but the speech about heart and spirit is actually given by the main character, Joseph, in reference to his deceased wife. Splitting the mother into two characters keeps the film from becoming too hagiographic and allows Considine to depict both the regret of one who is only slowly coming to realize what he has lost and the anguish of the one who shows us a small glimpse of the costs for which such large hearts are paid.

Hannah is not, however, the protagonist. Joseph (Peter Mullan) is one of those thinly-controlled-rageaholics that populate the depressed neighborhoods of cinematic naturalism. Joseph’s anger is so real, so palpable, so hardened, that you really don’t believe that these two characters could ever come to converse, much less connect to each other without relying on the most tired of bad movie cliches. Beauty and the beast? The atonement of sacrificial, redemptive violence? This film is too smart and too honest for either of those.

Hannah is in an abusive relationship (and that’s the understatement of the year), and the way Considine lets this play out without Hannah verbalizing the way her relationship with God affects and is affected by her attempts to negotiate her husband’s treatment of her allows the film to be achingly real without ever preaching. If you think Joseph is going to be nothing more than a one-man battered woman’s shelter…well, you are thinking too small. And if you worry that Hannah may just be careening from one monster to another…well, you may still be thinking too small. Joseph is a kind of monster, as are we all. The script never sounds a false note, though, and we totally understand and accept each individual step the characters take even as they lead us in a direction we could not have believed from the beginning.

Tyrannosaur is a difficult film. (Considine, in introducing the film, cited critics pulling out the old saw about the film being not so much enjoyed as endured.) It is filled with emotional and physical brutality that is all the more painful to witness because the layers that are removed from the characters give us deeper insight into them but also reveal chasm-like psychic scars.

And yet…God is allowed at least the possibility of being present in some form other than picture of Jesus that Hannah finally lashes out at, screaming, “What are you looking at?!?” For some of us who believe in a personal relationship with a loving God, the deepest confirmations of His love can be in the handful of times He brings people together who may be, at that moment, the only ones who can save us.

There are moments in life. They are few, but they are real. And they are holy. They are the moments when someone chooses you, and in their desperation, their anguish, their pain, indeed, their very hopelessness at the seeming absence of the divine in this world, they turn to you and recklessly and vulnerably, they let you love them.

In those moments,  you are God, and you cannot fail.

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