Review: HYENA ROAD Straddles A Blurred Line
Hyena Road is a bit of a difficult film to quantify. On the one hand, it follows perhaps a bit too closely to some cliched images and story formats of soldiers at war. On the other, it has an earnestness and frequently a humility that perhaps could only come from a Canadian perspective of a war that has seemingly little purpose. Paul Gross' third feature film, and his second about Canadian soldiers (his second film, Passchendaele, focused on WWI), attempts and mostly succeeds at a balanced perspective, neither completely exonerating nor villifying either side in the war.
Set in Kandahar province in Afghanistan, Ryan Sanders (Rossif Sutherland), an expert sharpshooter, and his team, manage to escape being killed by a group of Taliban fighters due to the help of The Ghost (Niamatullah Arghandabi), a man who fought against the Soviets in previous decades. Pete Mitchell (Gross), an intelligence officer in the Canadian Army, enlists Sanders to help him win favour from The Ghost to ensure the trust of the locals. Meanwhile, Sanders is secretly involved with Captain Jennifer Bowman (Christine Horne), who tries to work with Mitchell, who often counteracts official policy.
Hyena Road sets itself apart (and least in the first two thirds of the film) by its tone, which is closer to Kathryn Bigelow's than Clint Eastwood's recent films on the same war, and this is good. Perhaps this comes from Gross' Canadian perspective, which is less blindly patriotic and more keenly observant to both the positive contributions that international intervention can bring, and the negative consequences of lack of understanding.
Cinematographer Karim Hussein paints a stark yet detailed picture of the intensity and often boredom of this kind of military existence: the barren landscape is both beautiful and inhospitable, and to this Gross adds a story that matches this. This is less a story about 'killing the bad guy', and more about protection and peace (in keeping with perhaps a stereotype of Canada). But as the story makes clear, beyond the immediate need for a peaceful region, no one has thought (or is not allowed to conceive) beyond, and while the stakes might seem high, actions might have little impact in the long term.
The story moves between high-tension action sequences and more thoughtful retrospection on the larger military situation and personal events. Hussein's camera work and editing by David Wharnsby skillfully convey the confusion; the characters speak in military lingo, which would (of course) be understandable to them, but in the heat of battle, throws the spectator into a chaos that is likely deliberate; how can even military personnel, let alone a civilian, understand how to react in such a situation beyond the immediate need to stay alive? The more introspective conversations, especially between Mitchell and Sanders, as well as Mitchell and his superior, Captain Rilmen (Clark Johnson), attempt to provide information, but again likely deliberately, little makes sense, as this is a quaqmire that no one was prepared for.
Where the film is less successful is in portrayal of personal relationships, and in a bit too much of a 'heroic' ending that detracts from its previous sobering political stance. While I appreciate Gross' attempts to include women characters in important military positions, Bowman is a wasted character, little more than an object for Sanders' development; though Horne does a good job with what she's given, her personal situation does little to enhance the story.
Indeed, while I suspect the romantic subplot was an attempt both to make the characters more sympathetic to the audience and to add some melodrama, it detracts from the story of the war and is ultimately unnecessary. The only character of great interest is The Ghost, because we know only just as much as we need to of his story, and in a few short scenes, Neamat Arghandabi (in apparently his first film role) conveys as much as most actors need an entire film to do.
The conclusion might have some accuracy in terms of understanding how long-term understanding and intelligence-gathering will be far more useful than immediate, tactical intervention which only gets more soldiers killed, but it veers to far into blind heroism territory that will likely make a more considered spectator cringe.
The film's modulation between war film story predictability and its more thoughtful, realistic view and tone makes it difficult to become fully engaged with. Hyena Road has a more Canadian perspective on the realities of a fruitless war, but its attempts to be a dramatic overview of contemporary military life and war detract from its more interesting message.
- Paul Gross
- Paul Gross
- Paul Gross
- Rossif Sutherland
- Jennifer Pudavick
- Allan Hawco