Tyrannosaur (18)

Violence is heaped upon violence in this tale of woe.

Tyrannosaur (18)
dir: Paddy Considine

If the ingredients for a dish included jalapeños and Tabasco sauce, no one would expect the end product to be sorbet. Similarly, a film written and directed by Paddy Considine (who played bullies in A Room for Romeo Brass and My Summer of Love and a vengeful killer in Dead Man's Shoes) and starring Eddie Marsan (the unhinged driving instructor in Happy-Go-Lucky) and Peter Mullan (My Name Is Joe, Neds) has a minimal chance of being a jaunty bagatelle.

Tyrannosaur resembles a grim cinematic cousin of the "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch from At Last the 1948 Show, in which the characters outdo one another with tall tales of childhood deprivation. Here, Considine is in a competitive mood, building a structure that depends on each act of violence being more inevitable than the last. Tyrannosaur starts with a dog dying after it is booted in the ribs by its master, Joseph (Mullan). The film also ends badly for another mutt. In between, it is the human characters who receive punishment and dish it out.

Joseph is so upset by his dog's death that he destroys the shed where the animal lived and died. Then he sits in an armchair in the garden amid the debris, which feels more like a meta­phor than something that a person might do. Beyond Joseph's alcoholic brooding stretches an expanse of guilt, visible in every direction, over his mistreatment of his late wife. Asked whether he wishes she were still alive, he says no: he'd only treat her badly if she were.

Escaping the consequences of his latest violent outburst, he hides in a charity shop and attracts the sympathy of its manager, Hannah (the excellent Olivia Colman). As he crouches among the smocks and greatcoats, she reduces him to quiet sobs with her prayers. He needs saving and, in a piece of patterning worthy of a romcom, so does she.

A basket of baby dolls stacked on the counter hints at Hannah's inability to conceive, but that isn't the half of it. It's not the sadistic behaviour of her husband, James (Marsan), that is shocking, so much as the way it has been normalised by routine. He urinates on Hannah as she sleeps, which doesn't even merit a mention the next morning: she cleans up the mess while he pads around in his dressing gown. Joseph may be loud and brutish, but what you see is what you get, even if what you get is his fist in your face. James is a pretentious aggressor. He terrorises under the cover of respect­ability, intimidating Hannah in public with a throat-slitting gesture.

In a film that sets so much store by showing hardscrabble lives as they are supposedly lived, this distinction is important. Joseph, who wears his hatred on his sleeve, is deemed worthy of sympathy, while James is there to make us feel safer in Joseph's company. James's phony remorse makes Joseph's variety seem authentic. It comes down to nothing more sophisticated than that Joseph is the hero of a movie and James is the villain.

Marsan is terrifying, and we should feel grateful that he is willing to be vile in low-budget UK films after tasting high-life villainy in the Will Smith blockbuster Hancock. As with any movie monster, our belief in James's power derives largely from the reactions of others. It is no slight on Marsan to say that Colman's panicked pleading is so upsetting that we would be convinced of James's volatility even if he were played by Alan Titchmarsh.

But then, the cast is consistently stronger than the material, which comes close to sentimentalising suffering. Considine insists so fiercely on the preordained cruelty of working-class life that the audience would surely demand a refund if nothing horrific befell the chirpy young lad in Joseph's street.

The picture is superficially hard to watch, but, on the deepest level, it takes only the soft options, from the use of songs reiterating the characters' emotions to the simplistic decision to show their lives purged of joy. The influence of Gary Oldman's superior Nil By Mouth is strongly felt and Considine has even duplicated that film's occasional flaws. A victimised woman is again dropped from her own story at a crucial point and audiences are asked to endure once more the dreaded scene-that-explains-the-enigmatic-title.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 10 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The next great depression