Short Film Spotlight: Tyrannosaurus Death!

We’re pleased to introduce the Bright Wall/Dark Room Short Film Spotlight, a new monthly feature celebrating independent short films by emerging filmmakers. 

There’s a particular leap-of-faith feeling I associate with the opening shot of a short film. I feel myself making an offer to the filmmaker: if you grab me right away, I’m yours for wherever you want to take me. And when that offer is accepted and made good upon, the instant rush of gratification is more intense than anything a feature can offer. I know I won’t be here for long, so realizing quickly that I’m in good hands is something close to cinematic bliss.

Rarely has a short given me that instant rush the way Adam Volerich’s Tyrannosaurus Death! does. The first images are assaultively ecstatic—or ecstatically assaultive?—as a young man dressed in a felt dinosaur costume frantically destroys piñatas with a cricket bat. The colors are bright, the music has a buoyant quality that evokes OK Go, but in voiceover, the young man speaks in eulogies. Its eye may be vibrant, but Tyrannosaurus Death! has funerals on the brain.

That use of eulogies as a lens through which to view daily interactions will continue and evolve across the film’s fifteen-minute runtime. It’s a stroke of genius on the part of Volerich (who wrote and edited the film in addition to directing); as protagonist Russell—played by Ron Phippen, who’s possessed of a muscle control that allows his face to slacken into guileless shellshock one moment only to constrict into a supernova of fury and pain the next—sits across from his friends at a party, he sees them as they would be remembered post-mortem: “We’ll all remember [Maggie] as one of those rare people who cared for others more than herself;” “Dale was one of those people you could always count on to be there because he just didn’t know when to walk away.” It’s a unique and captivating illustration of Russell’s haunted psyche, and so graceful that you can easily miss the fact that it’s also a delivery device for backstory, weaving the characters’ relationships and history into the plot with exceptional deftness. Volerich doesn’t have time to fully explore the world, so he found a trick that allows an entire community to spring into focus with just a few brushstrokes—the kind of storytelling coup that’s so impressive I can’t help feeling just a little bit jealous.

Films that explore grief and mourning are a dime a dozen, and for such a universal and evocative experience, these stories virtually always stumble into the maudlin and the bathetic. Tyrannosaurus Death! makes it clear from its exclamatory title, and its opening salvo of two characters sincerely conferring while dressed in bafflingly incongruous bodysuits, that it has little time for unearned schmaltz. To say the film isn’t manipulative wouldn’t be quite apt—any film is a deliberate manipulation of its audience’s hearts and minds, and the promise of it being done effectively is what draws us to the form. The term only becomes a pejorative when filmmakers make those manipulations glaringly obvious, and where so many shorts can’t help showing us exactly how their gears turn, Volerich steers the viewer with a sure hand and a sly gallows humor.

Even that exclamatory title, which at first looks like a simple subversion of a common term, proves to be more than meets the eye—“Tyrannosaurus Death” would translate roughly to, “Death the Lizard Tyrant.” It’s an apt summation of the film’s characterization of grief as a cruel and insidious beast, one it’s impossible to reason with, let alone fully conquer.

That offer I make at the opening of a short film is based on an awareness that I’ll be seeing the entire arc of a story, from dilemma to some sort of catharsis, in only about 1/10th the runtime of a typical feature. That density of sensation, when executed with style and confidence, has the potential to leave me giddy and reeling in a way that’s entirely different from a feature film’s obligation to carefully ebb and flow. Tyrannosaurus Death! is a film that grabbed me, shook me, and spat me out with a new perspective on the balance between grace and pain that comprises this life. That’s a pretty good value in just 15 minutes.