Tyrannosaurus wrecks

Some men know precisely where the fine line between right and wrong lies. That doesn’t prevent them from stepping across it. Joseph seems to be a borderline case. He kicks his dog to death outside the betting shop, and immediately regrets what he’s done. Later, he collects his unemployment money at the post office, spouting forth racist crap at the Pakistani behind the counter who tells him not to come back here. That scene must play out regularly because he might have been out of a job for a long time. Joseph apologizes immediately, and I think he means what he says. Outside the shop, he finds a rock and throws it through the shop window. That scene reminded me of a Roger McGough poem: I am sorry, but this is the way things are.

Joseph is not a racist – worse, he hates everybody. One day, he hides behind the clothes rack in Hannah’s second-hand store in order to escape a beating. She lets him stay and offers him tea. He insults her with precise, well-aimed words. He comes to apologize the next day. She throws him out, but he is… curious about her. He sees her and wants to clean up his act. Then she turns up with bruises on her face.

This is the point where the movie gravitates towards a temptingly easy solution. Joseph could give Hannah’s husband a good thrashing – just as a warning to stay away, of course – and hook up with her. She would feel safe, and he could let his shoulders slump. They would make a nice couple. A lesser movie would go for that solution. “Tyrannosaur” has other plans for its characters. At first, I thought the title referred to Joseph’s predatory nature. It doesn’t. He crumbles in the presence of Hannah’s good side. There is a spellbinding scene where Hannah prays at his dying father’s bedside while Joseph is looking on. She does what he should do, but can’t. Maybe he can return the favour, but he knows she will never agree to him beating up her husband. Their need to find help is overpowering to them both, and if they cannot help each other, they must help themselves, or it might be too late.

“Tyrannosaur” is Paddy Considine’s first movie. It’s about violence and guilt, but doesn’t get bogged down in either. It sidesteps all the cliches of similar movies: Joseph and Hannah are alcoholics, but they behave erratically also when they are sober. Drink is not the trigger, but the drug to numb the pain and the guilt so they can go on for a little while longer. None of the characters reveal their past and present us with the reason they are the way they are. There are hints at Joseph’s family, but they don’t even begin to explain him. The same is true for Hannah. That’s as it’s supposed to be. What if the reason you are the way you are comes from a trivial event? What if the fact that you cannot change your past breaks your spine? What if the reason for your behaviour has gone missing or been forgotten? What if there isn’t any, and that is just the way you are – abusive and violent? In most cases, atonement is impossible. There is no closure – closure is for those who need a shiny cover. You don’t miraculously heal thyself. You go do what you have to – sometimes that means revenge, sometimes it means leaving for good. You have to live with the fact that you might be past saving.

Joseph and Hannah don’t play house, pretending everything is fine now, because they still are who they are. They don’t sleep with each other. They don’t take in the boy from across the street who is afraid to go home because of his useless step-dad’s pit-bull. Joseph tells Hannah in no uncertain terms to leave after she has taken refuge in his living room, and she complies with his demand because she understands him, and she understands what having her in his house means to him, and to her.

The performances are flawless. Peter Mullan has a way of projecting hurt and guilt while only standing there. His Joseph is a man who is twisted back on himself because of all the rage he carries around. Olivia Colman has only turned up on my radar with this movie, but she is on my watchlist now. Eddie Marsan goes to unknown human depths with his role as the husband. There is a scene where he apologizes to Hannah for having beaten her. Listen to how he speaks rather to what he says. Then watch Hannah’s face. Paddy Considine may know that neighborhood – it is only three doors down from Shane Meadows’ “Dead Man’s Shoes,” in which Considine played the lead.

The ending caught me cold, but movies like this are not about their ending. If you need a happy ending, look elsewhere. In situations like this, almost any change is an improvement. There is no real ending to stories like this, and the movie’s ending is far from happy, but not one of the characters would ask for happiness; they get some kind of relief, and must be content.

Time keeps on rippin’

There’s one big problem with Red Riding – and for once I’m not talking about the absence of English subtitles. No, the problem is much more basic, and it’s this: the trilogy starts on the strongest film (1974), continues with what is basically a structural retreat (1980) and ends on a disappointment (1983). Since I haven’t read the novels the series is based on, I cannot tell whether this is a problem with the original material or to what extent the individual directors are to blame – in technical terms, the filmmaking and acting are strong throughout, but they’re put to increasingly lesser use.

I’ve read internauts describe Red Riding as Zodiac meets The Wire. The first part of that description, while limited, is relatively apt: the atmosphere of fear, the trip back to the ’70s and early ’80s, the way the protagonists – journalists, policemen – go mad trying to bring about justice. I can see where the comparison to The Wire comes from, just about; both series deal heavily with corruption. But that’s where the comparison ends, or rather, falls flat on its face. Corruption in The Wire is a cause and symptom of systemic rot, but it’s the system that’s fucked up. In Red Riding, corruption is basically due to Evil, Greed and Villainy(tm). And unlike in HBO’s Baltimore, the Channel 4 Yorkshire’s brand of corruption could conceivably be killed, literally, by putting a bullet in the heads of its proponents, who are vile, horrible figures that are barely human at all. Yes, there may be evil of this metaphysical sort, but in that case it’s doubtful that a shotgun blast to the cranium will make a difference in the long run.

1974 has the best understanding of its noir roots, telling the moody, dark tragedy of a deeply flawed man who, in the end, signs his own death warrant not because of right or wrong, or even because of petty ambition, but because of love – a love he barely understands himself, since he’s so used to getting laid just because of his youthful good looks. 1980, for all its strengths – especially its cast -, makes the mistake of telling almost exactly the same story. Flawed protagonist digs too deep into a conspiracy, ignores warnings and threats, finds out too much and gets killed. There are elements that are different, from protagonist Peter Hunter’s dogged belief in justice (where journalist Eddie Dunford in the first film was a romantic, Hunter is an idealist) to the theme of betrayal, but basically we get a very similar story, told with somewhat less conviction.

The problem with 1983 is that it doesn’t know which story to tell, so it half-heartedly starts three stories but is mostly busy tieing up loose threads. Thing is, when your story is about corruption, there is no such thing as loose threads. The system cannot be healed, not fully, the kindly but creepily ingratiating older man (whether it’s Chinatown‘s Noah Cross or Red Riding‘s Reverend Laws) is only symbolic for the deeply rooted rot, so blowing off his head doesn’t suddenly make everything all right – nor does the cheesy, slow-motion scene of one of our protagonists emerging with the cute-as-a-button blonde abductee girl from the Wolf’s underground lair. We’ve been watching a series of films that at least claimed to be about corruption, and the corrupt men in power are still where they were before… so yes, rescuing the girl is obviously not to be scoffed at (nor, if we admit to our reactionary urges, repeatedly shooting Reverend Laws with a shotgun), but what about the police force? What about the men toasting their crimes while they’re supposed to work for justice? You can provide an ending that is ambivalent – but 1983 isn’t ambivalent so much as amnesiac, forgetting completely what the red thread was going through these three films.

If anyone’s reading this and wondering whether they should check out the series, I would say: absolutely… as long as you stop after the first film, or lower your expectations and forget about thematic consistency. For all its Yorkshire accents and grey weather, 1983 is too Hollywood at heart to live up to the promise of the first film. And there’s no need to see 1980, since you’ve already seen that story, just better. If anything, watch the second and third film for the filmmaking craft that went into both – but accept that you’ve already seen the best, and from here on it’s all downwards.

P.S.: Admittedly, some of my liking of 1974 is due to the plaintive, moving music by Adrian Johnston (of Jude fame):

Johnston could be accused of having one theme only for the film, slightly varied again and again… but hey, it works for me!

To the North – where we mumble as we bloody want!

I’m torn on the subject of subtitles. Of course I like to know what’s being said in films, but often the sound mix favours things other than what is spoken, added to which not every actor enunciates like Sir Ian McKellen. (Though that would be funny; imagine The Wire‘s McNulty intoning “What the fuck did I do?” in that marvellously fruity RSC drawl.) But a) when I’m looking at subtitles, I’m not looking at the actors, and b) so many subtitles don’t discriminate – what is whispered and is supposed to be hardly intelligible is usually presented as crisply as what is spoken clearly. Subtitles – the great leveller of dialogue. (Still – vastly preferable to dubs in 99.9% of all cases, though that’s a different discussion.) There are times when I prefer not to understand everything to having every single word spelled out for me in big frickin’ letters.

And then comes along Red Riding, a Channel 4 produced trilogy of films about murders and police corruption. A beautifully produced series of movies, gorgeous to look at, feeling like someone had taken the best elements of David Fincher’s Zodiac and James Elroy’s L.A. Confidential and put them together. Gritty, dark, complex, compelling.

And then those Yorkshire coppers and criminals open their mouths… and out comes – what? Strange vowel sounds. The occasional half-strangled consonant. Words that sound like the H.P. Lovecraftian equivalent of English spoken through snaggle-toothed, monstrous teeth and lips. Honestly, I was under the impression that ‘oop North’ it was all “All right, luv!”, but I thought they still spoke a recognisable form of English!

And these films live off their dialogue. The intricate plots within plots, the conspiracies and betrayals, are conveyed by speech… and half the time I have no idea whether the characters are talking or expelling phlegm from their throats! To be fair, the second of the three films – 1980, following 1974 – is easier to understand, not least because the worst offenders against clear speech are killed horribly in the first film. But still – even for native speakers of the language, I doubt that understanding those Yorkshiremen and their dark, corrupt doings comes easily.

So, what better than to activate the subtitles. To understand what people are saying. Bliss… except the DVD doesn’t feature subtitles. I can choose between Dolby 2.0 and Dolby 5.1 – but subtitles? Something that would actually help me understand what is going on? Something that would allow me to answer questions of the “So, explain this to me: what the bleep is going on?” kind with some sort of authority. But no – I have a lovely sound system, and all the good it does to me in this case is this: it allows me to hear the unintelligible noises with perfect, hifi quality. Thanks a bunch.

Note to self: next time, check out the German DVD edition after all. Perhaps they’re kind and wish their foreign audiences to know what’s going on. Because, let’s face it: bugger those Southerners if they can’t be bothered to live in Yorkshire!

P.S.: There’s something wrong when Peter Mullan is more easily understood than half the rest of the cast.

Hey, soldier! Leave that kid alone!

As usually, I was late to the party. Everyone ranted and raved about Children of Men when it came out, so I got the DVD almost immediately when it came out. And then it lay around for ages, was moved from one flat to another… and last Saturday we finally thought, “The value of a DVD lies in watching it, not having it,” as Confucius said. Or Yoda. I forget which.

Now, having seen the film, I’d say that the raves were warranted… if the reviewers left the cinema roughly two thirds into the film. The first hour or so of Children of Men is the most compelling, most chillingly credible cinematic dystopia I’ve ever seen. It is also one of the most breathtakingly well shot films – just how on earth did they shoot some of those long takes?

For a long time, Children of Men succeeds in making a horrific vision of the future all too credible by taking our present-day world and extrapolating. None of the over-the-top gadgetry of other near-future films. (While I’m embarrassingly fond of Strange Days, that millennial melodrama does look extremely dated. That film was right, however, in assuming that whatever entertainment technology will be the next best thing, it’ll largely be used do commodify violence and porn. Now let me go back to play GTA 4.)*

I also like that the film doesn’t provide lots of explanations and exposition. It throws its viewers into a world where the youngest child is 18 years old, where people have become almost indifferent to small-scale terrorist bombings but can’t stop crying over the killing of a Brazilian teen just because he happens to have been the last baby born. Where “Rah, rah, we are the best!” chauvinism has become the norm. And every one of these developments has its roots in our present day. Eighteen years of a slow, ongoing apocalypse will do that to you, I guess. But none of this is dwelled on. While watching the first hour of the film I never felt like the film was trying to tell me something in six-foot high, bolded letters.

But then the film becomes more heavy-handed. We get images that are clearly inspired by Abu Ghraib. We get grimy ethnic refugees in wartorn Bexhill. And to me at least, it all looks less like an extrapolation of our current world and more like editorial comments on current conflicts. Yes, the beginning of the film also commented on our present-day world, but it did so much more subtly, in the background. There’s a richness to the scene-setting that is more convincing and more complex than the in-your-face correspondences of the last 30, 40 minutes.

It doesn’t help that while the first hour of the film focuses on dialogues and characterisation, it ends on what is mostly running and shooting. At least the main character doesn’t become an action film hero (there’s a gorgeously funny escape roughly at the half-way point which plays refreshingly different from what you’d get in a Hollywood action film), but still, there are only so many variations on the theme of running away and being shot at .

Sadly I’d heard so much about the key scene where the guns fall silent at the sound of a baby crying, so when it came it didn’t strike me the way it struck many viewers. The Bexhill transition had taken me out of the film so much that the scenes of awe-struck ‘fugees staring in almost religious rapture at the first baby in 18 years, with the occasional poor sod in the background being shot while gawping, struck me as almost Monty Pythonesque – “Oh look, bab-eurgh!” “Look at its widdle fing-blam!” Or perhaps I just had a phase last Saturday of being a callous bastard… or perhaps it was that I didn’t quite buy the Uncanny Valley CGI Baby. Earlier scenes – the amazing sequence in the car, or Michael Caine’s final moments – got to me much more.

(Yes, I am evil.)

In some ways I think I’d reacted better to the film if I’d known less about it – but even then, I would have felt disappointed by the abrupt shift in tone. The moment that Peter Mullan’s cartoon character Syd turns up is the moment that the film sharply turns into something different, and much less compelling, than before. I came away feeling that I’d seen the beginning of a masterpiece and the end of an okay dystopia. I just wish I’d been able to finish watching that masterpiece before someone spliced a decidedly inferior film, though one strangely starring the same actors playing the same characters, into the reel.

*Actually, I haven’t got the equipment to play GTA 4, so I’m stuck with lower-tech virtual snuff. Poor widdle me.