This review originally appeared on Quietearth.us as part of my coverage of the EIFF 2014.
Back in 2009 I covered Gerard Johnson’s first feature, Tony which I liked very much; a kind of low-key psycho-thriller set around a London housing estate and featuring a knock-out performance from Peter Ferdinando. With Hyena, Johnson is once again working with Ferdinando, who stars as the amoral police detective Michael Logan, working as part of a special drugs taskforce, whose extreme lifestyle of near constant drug and alcohol abuse and shady, underhand tactics threaten to upset what little balance exists in his life. The film is a significant step up in scope and ambition for Johnson when compared with Tony, and while I admire it for its confident stylistic flourishes, unflinching brutality, and for Ferdinando’s excellent performance, there are problems with pacing and character which ultimately undermine its strengths and have the effect of making it an oddly frustrating experience.
Set in London, the film follows Michael as he trades favours and information with gangs in exchange for drug money, clashes with his superior officers and hangs out with his disreputable colleagues on the taskforce, snorting cocaine, drinking huge quantities of booze and dividing up the spoils of corruption. After witnessing the violent murder, at the hands of Albanian gangsters, of the member of an established Turkish drug ring with whom he has close ties, Michael immediately and characteristically shifts his allegiance to this powerful new gang. By coincidence, he is ordered by his boss to investigate the Albanians’ operation, and look into evidence of sex trafficking, thereby blurring the lines between his role as cop and criminal. As the plot progresses, Michael must deal with an internal police investigation into his methods, and also come to terms with the consequences his actions have on the people who get caught in the crossfire.
To begin with the positive: Hyena looks and sounds pretty terrific. The style of the film is established from the opening scenes of Michael and his crew gearing up for a raid and bursting into an underground nightclub while bathed in electric blue neon, savagely beating the clientele in a balletic slow-motion montage. The direction is energetic and confident, with hand-held camera work giving a sense of urgency to events. Matt Johnson provides a low-key, pulsating electronic score which nicely complements the overall atmosphere, and could stand as reason alone to check out this film. Ferdinando is excellent in the lead role, his knack for totally inhabiting his characters provides Michael with a realism not often seen in cinema and the film is stronger for his presence. The supporting cast provide admirable performances also, especially MyAnna Burning as Michael’s occasional girlfriend, and Elisa Lasowki as a victim of the Albanian sex trafficking system, whose plight gives Michael reason to question the moral vacuum he inhabits. The colour palette of the film is all intense blues and reds, which could be read as representing Michael’s duality, his position in the police, heaven and hell, or it may just be a stylistic choice, but either way it works to give the film a distinctive look and feel, and this is where Johnson succeeds admirably. The world the characters inhabit seems complete: scary and tough.
The problems with Hyena stem mainly from the nature of the main character, with whom I really found no sympathy. It is impossible when watching this film not to consider the parallels between it and Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (and I make the distinction between Ferrara’s original and Werner Herzog’s playful remake) since they tread such similar territory.
When I met Johnson after first seeing Tony he spoke of his next project as a “British ‘Bad Lieutenant’… a ‘French Connection’ in London,” and Hyena is undoubtedly, demonstratively indebted to both those movies. The main difference, however, is that while Keitel’s lieutenant undergoes a powerful catharsis and redeems himself, Ferdinando’s Michael goes through the motions, but never really seems to learn anything. Ferrara’s film was lightening in a bottle and probably that director’s finest work, so it’s not exactly fair to compare the two, but looking at them together illustrates Hyena‘s real problem; we never really care much about Michael or see a side of him which lends us to sympathize with his situation. Johnson and Ferdinando don’t give the character any kind of back story or reason for his addictions and corruptions, and the languorous pacing of the film means that while we spend a lot of time watching him, he basically remains a mystery in terms of motives and history (while of Keitel’s character we can at least be sure that he has lost God). This may, of course, be the entire point. To know nothing of a character can give us the chance to learn as we go along, but the way Michael is written keeps us from ever getting into his head; he expresses regret and emotion one minute, but then seems to get on with the business at hand immediately afterwards, leaving us wondering if he’s really human.
The film is a little under two hours long, and as sign of how episodic and baggy it feels, it really does feel like two hours. The festival guide suggests (rather ominously) that the film’s pacing is “organic and adventurous”, but this could easily be a euphemism for ‘drawn-out and ill-considered’, as the narrative never seems to take off and fly, presenting instead a series of confrontations and set-pieces which work well individually, but do not weave together to form a satisfying story. Towards the end of the film Michael rescues a young woman who has been forced into prostitution, and attempts to save her in his clumsy efforts towards salvation. This plot device is as old as the hills, and it really doesn’t feel fresh when it’s used here.
The film is pretty unflinching in its use of violence, not gratuitously so, but enough to give the gore-hounds a certain satisfaction. One memorable scene involves a group of gangsters holding a conversation as they lean over a bathtub to slice a victim’s corpse into parts – the kicker being that the men are naked as they do so, yet appear so relaxed that they might well be playing cards – and it’s scenes like this which give the film an occasional darkly comic edge. The same cannot be said for an agonisingly ill-judged and needless rape scene which fails to elicit the intended response simply by dint of the fact that its graphic detail distracts us from the role it plays in the plot, essentially providing reason to mistrust the film, rather than follow it.
Hyena, then, is a film which it is easy to admire in many ways, but very difficult to actually like. Johnson is clearly a talented director, getting the best from his cast and crafting a seedy and unpleasant world for them to stumble around inside, but the question remains: Who is this film really for? Police procedural thrillers thrive on anti-heroes and no-nonsense detectives, but Hyena‘s central character is not well formed enough for us to understand him as such. Horror fans will enjoy the gore and dark humour, but such scenes are relatively intermittent and not the focus of the narrative. Those seeking a Ferrara style redemptive drama will enjoy the obvious nods to his best work (Ms. 45, King of New York and Bad Lieutenant) but the film lacks the structure and pace required to work as such a genre piece, and moreover it is void of the catharsis and moral vision which those films held at their core. As we watch Hyena unfold, we also watch it start not to work, and while I enjoyed the film as a visual experience and a chance to enter a world I know nothing about, I found very little there to care about. It pains me to say it, but I’m not sure who I would recommend this film to. At the same time though, I’m really looking forward to seeing what Johnson does next.