Nobody ever said that Peter Mullan was an easygoing actor. His full-bore intensity was most vehemently on view in Ken Loach's "My Name Is Joe," and here it is again in the Sundance hit "Tyrannosaur," where he plays a character so furiously eruptive that, watching him, you may want to retreat to the back row of the theater if you're not already there.
Mullan's Joseph is a widower who lives in a run-down blue-collar neighborhood and spends much of his time stewing in bars and railing against the world. No profanity is foreign to him. When, after one of his customary outbursts, he slinks into a local charity shop to cool down, the shop's volunteer worker Hannah (Olivia Colman) kneels beside him and calmly says "Would you like me to pray for you?" Joseph is repelled by her Christian do-goodism and spews venom at her. His cruelty cuts into her, but we can see that he is also, in spite of himself, touched by her concern.
Paddy Considine, the actor best known for Jim Sheridan's "In America," is the film's writer-director, and, like many an actor-turned-director, he makes his actors the whole show. (The film's characters are derived from Considine's 2007 short "Dog Altogether," starring Mullan.) The performances carry the film and occasionally lift it beyond its kitchen-sink lower-depths doldrums.
Mullan doesn't soften Joseph. From the first frame, when he's severely beating his dog, we can see that he is not a strong candidate for salvation. His gradually warming relationship with Hannah is complicated by the fact that she has her own horrors to deal with – a criminally abusive husband (Eddie Marsan) who tests her faith to the max. When Hannah takes refuge with Joseph, himself an abusive husband, and she tells him she feels safe around him, he answers "nobody's safe with me" – including, no doubt, himself.
The tentative, fragile relationship between Joseph and Hannah is handled with remarkable restraint. Colman, known primarily in Britain for comedic roles, gives a performance of such tenderness and subtlety that you always know what's going on in her head even when no lines are spoken. "Tyrannosaur" is a jagged, uneven, often unfulfilling experience, but there are a few first-rate scenes between Joseph and Hannah that convincingly put forward the capacity for redemption in even the most ravaged of souls. Grade: B (Unrated)