We’re continuing our coverage of the Sundance Film Festival with two movies playing in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, both from the United Kingdom, both films tinged with dark humor by first-time directors but also with a number of familiar names and faces. John Michael McDonagh’s crime comedy The Guard was one of the lucky films to open this year’s festival, while actor Paddy Considine’s directorial debut, the character drama Tyrannosaur, is a fascinating look at one particular sub-section of British culture.
Three years after his brother Martin kicked off the Sundance Film Festival with his debut In Bruges, John Michael McDonagh continues the family tradition with his own directorial debut. This one also stars Brendan Gleeson, this time playing Sgt. Gerry Boyle, the seemingly sole police officer in the small seaside village of Galway, Ireland which allows him to take liberties with the law when it comes to taking drugs and soliciting escorts.
The film starts out with an incredible energy, a car speeding through the streets blasting music that promptly crashes and gives us an unexpected laugh while introducing Gleeson’s character. While it may be something we might expect from Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino, it lets us know that we’re in for something a little different and possibly akin to an Irish “Bad Lieutenant.” Unlike the bad cops played by Abel Ferrara and the Nicolas Cage, Gleeson’s character is quite affable and relatively pleasant despite his constant swearing and misbehaving. When Don Cheadle’s FBI agent comes to town, trying to stop a trio of drug traffickers who have a boat somewhere offshore with millions of dollars of cocaine, he’s forced to work with the local authority i.e. Gerry. Unfortunately, this is happening on Gerry’s day off when he’s brought in two escorts (dressed as police officers of course) to keep him entertained.
On the surface, “The Guard” is a clever spin on the buddy cop comedy with the tone and vibe being more in line with the Irish setting. The two driving forces behind the film working at all are McDonagh’s sharp script and the brilliant pairing of Gleeson and Cheadle as two very different law figures. The scenes of the two of them hanging out and chatting are where the film really shines. The bad guys are equally entertaining thanks to the smart casting of Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham and David Wilmot, and there are a number of colorful local characters like a young smart-assed boy who keeps popping up to offer his opinion.
While most filmmakers seem to be using limited or muted color palettes to give their films a distinctive look, McDonagh goes in the opposite direction by using wildly vivid colors in every scene. At first, one might feel this is a very deliberate choice in trying to be stylish, but after a while, the bright background colors start to become distracting to the characters, which is a shame because the film is so much about them.
Though filled with hilarious lines and a number of great scenes, something seems off about the film, as the tonal shifts make it somewhat disjointed and also quite predictable, maybe since McDonagh is treading on familiar genre territory. One particular stand-off between Gerry and a bay guy is resolved in a way we’ve definitely seen at least once before. An even bigger problem is the film’s climax, a shootout that feels so sloppy with choppy editing that makes it hard to tell what is going on and which makes us think action may not be McDonagh’s forte.
On the other hand, it seems unlikely anyone but Brendan Gleeson could pull off a character like Sgt. Gerry Boyle and keep the crowd on his side, so one has to give McDonagh credit for finding the best actors to deliver his snappy dialogue. Ultimately, that’s what makes it worthwhile.
Written and directed by Paddy Considine
Starring Peter Mullan, Olivia Coleman, Eddie Marsan, Samuel Bottomley, Robin Butler, Sally Carman, Sian Breckin
To say that Paddy Considine’s feature film debut “Tyrannosaur” is dark would be an enormous understatement, but it certainly proves the British actor has a distinctive and singular vision as a filmmaker as if working with so many great filmmakers has rubbed off on him.
Just to give you a sample of how dark this film is, it opens with Peter Mullan’s Joseph, a grizzled alcoholic, angrily kicking his dog so hard it dies a short time later. He has a fairly humdrum life of going to the pub and drinking so heavily that he’s easily provoked into fights, his only real interest being a pretty and ultra-religious shopkeeper named Hannah, played by Olivia Coleman, who some will remember as the only police woman on the force in Edgar Wright’s “Hot Fuzz.” What Joseph doesn’t know but soon learns is that Hannah’s once-loving husband James, played by Eddie Marsan in a role that actually allows him to mix the two things he does so well, is violent and abusive towards her.
The film has a rather strange tone that’s actually fairly endearing but it also allows it to defy genre characterization. It’s a character drama first and foremost but there’s romance underlying the awkward relationship between Joseph and Hannah. If there’s any humor in the film, then it’s in the situations and some of the odd characters that surround Joseph, including a dog-wielding ruffian living across the street. In that respect, the film falls into a similar realm as Andrea Arnold’s films, dealing with working class people who live in and around estate flats, but it’s also a very down-to-earth story of real British people similar to Considine’s frequent collaborator, Shane Meadows.
At first, one might assume Joseph is so despicable and full of rage that it would be hard to empathize with him, but he’s an incredibly sympathetic character in the way Mullan plays him. The film’s title doesn’t refer to his character’s frequent rages – it’s isn’t, but you’ll actually have to see the movie for yourself to learn the reference. Coleman gives an even more impressive performance, may because most won’t be used to seeing her in such a dramatic role, but she’s absolutely astounding, making one wonder why she’s not doing more dramatic acting.
Then we have Marsan’s character who is such a despicable psychopath that he makes Joseph seem a lot more rational. We first meet him when he comes home late at night and urinates on his sleeping wife. We did warn you this was dark, didn’t we? It’s the most apparent in the way Considine handles the very serious nature of domestic abuse, handling it realistically almost to a fault and never sugarcoating that aspect of the story. The difference between James and Joseph is that Marsan’s character tries to act sweet and loving, constantly apologizing to Hannah after attacking her, but we see his true nature come out more than once.
Even though this is a fairly small and (relatively) quiet drama, Considine doesn’t skimp when it comes to production values making a film that looks far better than the (presumably) low budget. Visually, he captures an environment that may feel familiar from other British dramas in a way that’s as personal and distinctive as the characters and material.
All the violence and emotional fireworks ultimately pays off with an ending that’s quite heartwarming and optimistic, because we leave the film truly believing that even an old dog like Joseph may be able to learn to change his ways.