Of Men and Dogs

in 11st Transilvania International Film Festival

by Angelo Mitchievici

This year’s FIPRESCI jury at TIFF (Transilvania International Film Festival), composed of film critics Alberto Castellano (Italy), Salome Kikaleishvili (Georgia) and Angelo Mitchievici (Romania), deliberated over the section entitled “Gods and Men” — a name recalling Xavier Beauvois’s movie. It is a thematic section with a flexible, announced theme that changes every year. In the competition there were 12 movies: The Year of the Tiger (El Año del Tigre) by Sebastián Lelio, The Monk (Le moine) by Dominik Moll, The Light in Her Eyes by Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix, Electrick Children by Rebecca Thomas, David by Joel Fendelman, Donoma by Djinn Carrénard, Teodora Sinner (Pacatoasa Teodora) by Anca Hirte, Headshot (Fon Tok Kuen Fah) by Pen-ek Ratanaruang, The Rabbi’s Cat (Le Chat du rabbin) by Antoine Deslesvaux and Joann Sfar, Tyrannosaur by Paddy Considine, Corrode (Kshay) by Karan Gour and A Confession (Gan-jeung) by Park Su-min. Each of the twelve films in the competition portrays in its own way a form of religious sensibility, from the experience of the ineffable to ritual violence; from transfiguration to theological commentary on ironic relativity; from dogmatism to religious forms of emancipation; from devotion to challenge. At the end of the screenings and after the deliberation we agreed on the British film of Paddy Considine, Tyrannosaur.

The film’s title is ironically set by Paddy Considine against the already established series of Steven Spielberg’s, Jurassic Park, and the film is an even more direct allusion. But Spielberg’s clones are much nicer than Considine’s human tyrannosaurs, whose instinct as predators emanates from nature and places them at the top of the food chain. What separates man from animal is not voraciousness, but anger. Anger is the substance that makes up Joseph (Peter Mullan), a 50-year-old man, who cannot control himself; for whom almost every event is likely to become the pretext of an explosion of violence. This hubris not only affects others, but consumes the host, destroying everything related to his human side. In a fit of rage, Joseph murders his own dog, his only companion in a lonely, sterile world. But anger is found throughout the suburban environment, in the air, waiting for a little spark to cause a blast. Considine investigates these peripheral spaces of petty, useless people for whom violence has become second nature as a consequence of marginalisation, frustration, lack of education, lack of perspective, or poverty. However, all the observations of the camera-eye are not articulated in terms of explanations, as they do not lead to the fundamentals of social wellbeing.

One of the most common expressions of anger, coupled with the incapacity of assuming personal failure, is xenophobia, ritually practiced by one of Joseph’s friends. In such an environment, oases of peace are few and at the same time emphasised by contrast. Dogs, children and women become the victims of bullies in the neighbourhood. Hatred is accompanied by self-hatred, the secretion of a sick organism. Considine did not put us in front of an exceptional case and is far from creating a noir romance of violence such as David Lynch did in Wild at Heart (1990), where the boy in the neighbourhood simply lives his temperamental state of being a “rebel without a cause”. Nor do we have the organised violence of the young offender about to build up his legend among mobsters. Violence in Considine’s film does not have an aura of gangster glamour and is not part of a humanist agenda like that of Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino (2008). It is not associated with power, but it is rather a disease which consumes you from within.

What gives the film its dramatic tension is the almost unbelievable meeting — but justified in the film — between Joseph, a man of rare violence, and a woman who is the exact opposite, Hannah (Olivia Colman), who creates a field of magnetic effect. Joseph’s rudeness comes under the guise of sincerity, as furious people understand it; as a general denunciation of evil in the world, and as punishment turned primarily on those who contradict this rule: the innocent. The meeting is emblematic in this regard, and obviously it is one that leads to the inner core of violence focused on the good, the righteous, the few who deny the generalised axiom of spreading evil. Joseph’s encounter with Hannah is therapeutic, in that the healer can see the suffering, and can also seize a kernel of goodness, and I would say, even honesty, because at no moment does Joseph pretend to be anything other than he is. What makes Hannah see through the armour of rudeness and rejection with which Joseph is armed is her own experience as the victim of a tyrannical husband. The most shocking scenes of the film are not related to violence that explodes like a grenade, one embraced by monographic films about poor neighbourhoods where deliquency thrives, but one which includes moral torturein an apparently honourable bourgeois milieu. Returned home drunk, Hannah’s husband James (Eddie Marsan), urinates on her, and the way he chooses to speak to her expresses total contempt in a sadistic manner. This sadism is no stranger to the way Joseph treated his own wife, and here we have a direct explanation of the title. “Tyrannosaur” was the nickname given by Joseph to his overweight wife, who suffered from diabetes, a once beautiful woman whose main fault was her innocence and good heart.

Victims are defined by their goodness, the essence of sadism being to turn evil on those who are not already possessed by it — the truly innocent — to emphasise the gratuity of violence and its blasphemous nature. Innocence is the great fault which deserves punishment; it is the only fact that blatantly contradicts this principle of absolute evil able to justify any violent act. Unfriendly or even friendly dogs, helpless women, children: they all are potential victims. Tyrannosaurs have this territory to hunt. Armed with a baseball bat, Joseph destroys the dog of the hooligans who terrorise his protégé, a child. Murder is rational, the victim is innocent, the dog poses a threat to the child but the guilt belongs to his irresponsible owner. The scene is worth a closer look. Hooliganism gives voice to his anger, his body language is eloquent, he takes off his shirt, shakes it, climbs the fence, attacks his opponent with insults and threats, but something stops him while crossing the border that separates him from the man waiting calmly with a bat in hand. Beyond the anger, the instinct embedded in this predator provides the basic warning that this calm is a pending threat: a bigger and stronger animal determined to defend his territory until the last breath. Considine’s film throws us into a world not just of periphery, but also into a “reservoir of dogs” due to  this regression to animality. Suddenly the suburb becomes a menagerie, a Jurassic Park, except that there is no electric fence that separates man from predator.

The border should go around the improvements made by any civilisation: tolerance, rule of law, sense of community and so forth. In fact, the borders have been dissolved, and there is just difference in terms of size between humans and dogs. Even the innocent fails. It is perhaps the most devastating effect, one that transforms the victim into the executioner even for a moment. Laudably, there is no easy compensation for Considine’s moral justifications; no explanations are needed for a sign of personal apocalypse. Considine does not allow for easy justifications, for moral compensation, for required explanations; he doesn’t stage an apocalypse of didacticism. The world does not end either with, or in Joseph and Hannah; there is continuity, the calm is recovered, there is hope. But nothing more than that.