REVIEW – Tyrannosaur (2011)

FilmJuice have my review of Paddy Considine’s directorial debut Tyrannosaur, which is out this weekend.

A little while ago, I wrote about the phenomenon of Oscar Bait.  While this industry term is often taken to describe films that are god enough to be serious Oscar contenders, I chose to apply the term to films that seem to have been designed to explicitly pander to the preferences of Academy Voters as part of the film’s marketing strategy. Oscar Bait films rely upon Oscar nominations in order to find an audience and they rely upon their potential for Oscar nomination in order to attract prestigious A-list actors who are willing to work for scale on the understanding that their performance will net them an award. Films like The King’s Speech (2010), Rabbit Hole (2010) and The Reader (2008) are all based upon literary properties, they all feature strong central performances and they all feature very well thought of actors who might well be considered ‘overdue’ an Oscar. As Peter Biskind points out in his book on Miramax (the company that turned Oscar-baiting into a business plan), this is a win-win formula: The Academy gets to look smart, the actors get awards and the studios get easily-marketable prestige pictures that don’t cost a lot of money to make. While I’ve written about the evolutionary process distorting blockbuster scriptwriting before, the same process is at work in prestige drama.

I mention Oscar Bait as it can be seen as a distortion of another equally puzzling product of the film industry: the actor’s piece. Paddy Considine has a (admittedly well-earned) reputation as one of the best actors working today. Having made a name for himself in such dark and edgy independent films as Dead Man’s Shoes (2004), Considine has managed to cultivate a reputation for intelligence and emotional integrity. A reputation due to his intelligent selection of roles and the generosity of his erstwhile collaborator Shane Meadows. Indeed, the mock documentary Le Donk & Sco-Zay-Zee (2009) was marketed as a Meadows film in which Considine was given lots of room in which to create his own character. Given that Considine has been quite vocal about his creative powers and has directed a short film, it was only a matter of time before someone ponied up the dough for his to make a film of his own.  The resulting poneyage is the rather uneven Tyrannosaur:

The problem is that, once Considine has introduced us to the story of an emotional incontinent befriended by an obliging sponge, he suddenly becomes concerned about the lack of accountability in this sort of dynamic. Realising that there is something fundamentally dishonest and unfair about expecting Hannah to pay the psychic cost for Joseph’s redemption, Considine introduces us to a secondary layer of characters whose very unpleasantness sets them up as candidates for some redemptive act of violence. However, this secondary dynamic established, Considine then changes course again and decides to deny his characters redemption because no violent act can ever be redemptive. While these reversals serve to both keep the audience guessing and keep the film from falling into cliché, they also serve to muddy the psychological waters to the point where character motivation become completely impenetrable. The film tellingly ends with Joseph reading out a letter in which he explains why he did what he did and why he thinks Hannah did what she did; what is this letter if not an admission by the writer/director that he can no longer make sense of his own characters?

It is interesting to compare Considine’s career trajectory to that of Tyrannosaur‘s star Peter Mullan. Much like Considine, Mullan is an actor with a reputation for integrity and intelligence. His career features a blend of low-budget independents and wisely chosen bigger-budget parts that seems to have provided a model for Considine’s careful engagement with the mainstream. However, while Considine’s first directorial foray proved to be a poorly thought-through actor’s piece that falls apart once you look beyond the (admittedly brilliant) performances, Mullan’s films (the wonderful black comedy Orphans, the politically-engaged weepy The Magdalene Sisters and the blisteringly powerful Neds) all benefit from an intellectual substance that owes nothing to their central performances.

As someone who is hyper-sensitive about self-promotion, the difference between Orphans and Tyrannosaur is quite striking. Considine talks endlessly about how creative he is and yet shows little evidence of that creativity once he steps behind a camera. Conversely, Peter Mullan is known primarily as an actor and yet his films are universally intelligent, powerful and memorable. I suspect that Considine’s choice of Mullan for the lead in Tyrannosaur is hardly accidental given the similarities between the two men’s careers.  In fact, I suspect that Mullan may be something of a role-model for the younger Considine but while Considine has followed Mullan in becoming a director, Tyrannosaur suggests that he still has some way to go before he can be said to be on a par with Mullan.

Neds (2010) – Don’t Let You Get the Best of You

David Simon has a lot to answer for.

There was a time, around the turn of the millennium, when big institutions had their day in the sun: In foreign affairs, people began to look to the United Nations as a venue for resolving political conflicts while independent NGOs were seen not only as fonts of specialised knowledge but as self-less agents for change and charity.  In domestic affairs, the backlash against the Thatcherite era of cuts and privatisations gained political substance as people began to demand proper investment in schools and hospitals.  In the UK at least, this unexpected belief in the power of institutions to change the world swept the Labour party into power with a mandate for an ‘ethical foreign policy’ and massive investment in public services.  For a while, people believed.  People felt the institutional sun on their up-turned faces.

But then, as these things inevitably do, the wheel began to turn.

It is hard to tell when precisely it was that the rot began to creep into cultural representations of social institutions but it was pretty obvious when the roof fell in.  Over the course of five short series, David Simon’s HBO series The Wire took a crowbar to the knees of pretty much every large social institution in America: The police, organised labour, politics, the media, schools and even criminal gangs.  Nobody escaped Simon’s forensic wrath.  According to The Wire, no institution could be trusted to deliver social change because institutions rely upon human agents who are invariably both too self-serving and too short sighted to act in the interests of society as a whole.

Change, we were told, simply could not come from above.

If The Wire’s brutal analysis constituted the crest of a wave of disillusionment then Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters (2002) was undeniably a distant but powerful off shore surge that contributed to the bathymetric sway.  The film focuses upon Ireland’s infamous Magdalene asylums, institutions run by the Catholic Church with parental consent that effectively pressed young women into slavery in order to ‘protect’ them and others from their fallen morality. Over the course of 119 minutes, The Magdalene Sisters wages a viciously effective assault on the notion that charitable institutions could ever be anything other than venues for misguided authoritarianism and the psychological and physical abuse of vulnerable people.

But what of the individual in all of this?

If it is unacceptable to suggest that the poor are simply lazy and that the vulnerable are simply weak, then surely it is just as unpalatable to suggest that the poor and vulnerable are nothing but the passive victims of misguided social institutions?  If may well be reductive and simplistic to place all of one’s faith for social renewal in large institutions but it is just as simplistic to paint these institutions as nothing more than part of an unjust and exploitative system.  People are individuals.  People have choice.  People have agency.  A more sophisticated representation of the ills of our society would allow for this.  It would acknowledge the responsibilities that we have to ourselves.

Peter Mullan’s latest film Neds (Non-educated Delinquents) attempts to examine both sides of the coin.  Set in 1970s Scotland, the film depicts a social landscape bristling with institutions that are quick to open their arms to working class children but just as quick to turn their backs on these same children if they fail to follow the (largely unwritten) rules.  However, while Mullan does a brilliant job of depicting the fickle and irrational nature of big institutions, his film’s real power comes from a willingness to recognise that we play a large part in our own downfall and salvation.

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