Hyena Road (2015)
“Based on 1000 True Stories”
Hyena Road (2015)
Director: Paul Gross
Cast: Rossif Sutherland, Paul Gross, Clark Johnson
Synopsis: Three different men, three different worlds, three different wars – all stand at the intersection of modern warfare – a murky world of fluid morality where all is not as it seems.
Hyena Road is a narrow ribbon of grey tarmac that bisects the mountainous desert region of the Helmand Province. It’s a major supply route for coalition military bases in that region of Afghanistan, and is therefore a constant target for insurgents seeking to disrupt the supply of provisions and equipment to those bases. In the suffocating heat, groups of three coalition snipers take cover behind mountain rocks that overlook the road as they scope the landscape for insurgents planning to ambush passing convoys, and take pot shots at suspicious marks on the road to see if they explode. For them, life is comprised of protracted periods of boredom, briefly punctuated by bursts of terrifying violence.
The lot of the common soldier has provided material for the movies since silent days, and Paul Gross’s Hyena Road adds little that is new to that long history – although an unplanned pregnancy in the war zone might be a first. Here, the day-to-day life of a modern-day soldier provides the lacklustre backdrop to a mildly diverting tale of military intelligence in which a Canadian officer attempts to ingratiate himself with a legendary village elder who has returned from self-imposed exile long after most had believed him to be dead.
The officer is Pete Mitchell (Gross, who also wrote, directed and produced, so you know who to blame if the movie doesn’t measure up to your expectations), a war zone veteran whose sphere of expertise means he’s more likely to be following any engagement with the enemy on a monitor in a tent some distance from the action than spitting sand as he dodges bullets. The returning elder (Niamatullah Arghandabi) is swathed in black and easily identified by the fact that he has different-coloured eyes. He’s given no name, but is known as The Lion of the Desert, although Russian forces back in the ’90s dubbed him The Ghost, due to the fact that they found him impossible to kill. Realising that anyone capable of earning the grudging respect of the Red Army is worth having on your side – especially as the coalition’s only other key contact is a local crime lord with links to the Taliban – Mitchell arranges a rendezvous with The Ghost. He’s helped in his mission to forge an alliance with the Afghan by young sniper Ryan (Rossif Sutherland, son of Donald), who was saved from certain death by The Ghost when surrounded by advancing insurgents.
Gross handles the action scenes in Hyena Road with a lot of confidence, and forsakes any creative flourishes for a raw no-nonsense style of shooting which pitches the audience into the midst of the battle zone. The film’s soundtrack, which consists mostly of an evocative, gently mournful female wailing set to vaguely ethnic music, adds to the film’s strong atmosphere as the military’s armoured vehicles traverse the sun-seared landscape, or when the camera is allowed to roam the teeming streets and narrow alleys of the nearest town. But it falters badly when widening its scope to embrace a domestic sub-plot which feels horribly forced and comes complete with anchor to bring the film juddering to a halt. Christine Horne’s part is clearly added, not because it adds to or compliments the main plot strand, or even to provide some emotional substance to the pressures of war felt by Ryan, with whom she is engaged in an illicit romance, but simply to provide the male target-audience with some female distraction between combat scenes. It’s a ploy that backfires badly, but which is symptomatic of the difficulty Gross clearly has in generating any kind of emotional resonance through characterisation. The ending is no doubt intended to be a heart-breaking tragedy, but chances are it will leave most viewers unmoved.
(Reviewed 27th March 2016)