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Bleak but Honest
on February 4, 2012
Very rarely does a film so bleak, so prone to trample over its characters until they might not come back up, manage to avoid the usual melodrama and clichés we have come to expect and instead stay an honest, unflinching and powerful glimpse of two individuals, one too hard and the other too soft for the world, just trying to make it through the day. Peter Mullan gives one of the year's most destructive and powerful performances as Joseph, a widower who spends his time drinking, picking fights and experiencing bouts of anger that tends to come crashing down into paralyzing moments of regret. We understand he wants better for himself and could use a bit of redemption but it isn't an easy thing to achieve. However, he does find some solace in Hannah played by Olivia Colman who also gives one of the year's most devastating performances as a thrift store owner and born again Christian. Joseph feels drawn to her glow and the sort of warmth he has been looking for. Sadly she isn't who she seems because behind her smile is immense pain for she lives with an abusive husband who beats her. Hannah had hoped religion could be her savior but when that didn't work she turned to alcohol. At times Hannah and Joseph can seem total opposites but yet exactly the same. As we watch their relationship develop there are brief moments of hope and even a few laughs, but for me even they are incredibly emotional and at times almost moved me to tears. Considine's exploration into violence and rage is so gut wrenching and brutally honest that when good things happen you are glad but also very cautious because moods could change without warning and this fine line they walk is hard to watch.
At the center of it all is Joseph's anger which comes from a place many films rarely explore unless the main character is a villain, and maybe under other circumstances or a different life he would be. But here he is just your "Average Joe" whose fury isn't brought on by some terrible event or the result of any wrong doing, it is just his nature. He was born with a fire inside. It caused him to be mean and abusive to his wife, it causes him to rough up kids at a pub, and throw a rock through the front window of a shop. The best Joseph can do is try to control this rage and when it gets the best of him, like in the film's opening when in a fit he kicks his dog's ribs in, he shows what little kindness he can by carrying it home, being by its side as it dies and then burying it in the back yard. In any other film is would be impossible to expect the audience to forgive such an act, but Considine understands that. You see he isn't asking for forgiveness but just hoping to reach an understanding with the viewer. As terrible as Joseph's actions may be at the time the idea that it is his nature, something he can't control which is destroying him, and the fact that he tries his best to do good evens out the scales just enough for us to have faith in him.
The most important of these attempts to adjust comes with helping Hannah who he tries to protect even though everything about him says otherwise. This leads to the film's most shocking moment in which he discovers a truth about her, and perhaps about himself and every human, that rattles him to the core. This truth being that even the most glowing and kind of people are capable of unthinkable violence and rage. Now this might seem to be a totally bleak assessment on life, and maybe it is, but Considine doesn't allow it to prevail without putting up a fight. Instead he tries to make us and Joseph realize that the best you can do is battle through it all and although you will not always find redemption at least maybe a bit of peace and happiness can be earned, which might mean sacrificing yourself.
I really have to hand it to Paddy Considine who most know from his acting in such films as "Deadman's Shoes" or "In America". For this to be his first feature is quite impressive. He shows a level of maturity and confidence you would only expect from a veteran director. This could have easily become a preachy or overly stylized independent film that drowned in its own melodramatic miserablism but instead Considine wasn't afraid to be dark, gritty and realistic and stay true to his characters, caring for them and their emotions in a way that didn't feel artificial, and making a real connection with the audience. To say it is an easy watch would be a lie but its profoundness in its exploration of violence and anger along with two of the year's best performances make it a must watch and one of my favorite films of the year.