Gerard Johnson's portrait of an even worse lieutenant never seeks to ingratiate itself or pander to audience expectations.
HyenaDirector: Gerard Johnson
Cast: Peter Ferdinando, Stephen Graham, Neil Maskell
UK Release Date: 2015-07-06
The title of Hyena refers to Michael Logan, the main character in this bloody British crime drama, a venal detective for the London Metropolitan Police Service (the Met) who is neck deep in extortion, bribery, and drug trafficking among other naughtiness.
Naming the movie after an animal often deemed a symbol of treachery and immorality is one of the less subtle examples of a motion picture leading its audience by the hand since the use of College’s “A Real Hero” in the soundtrack of Drive where the chorus (“And you have proved to be / A real human being / And a real hero”) repetitively sledgehammered home the current state of character development. This was presumably for audience members who had fallen asleep and missed the film in its entirety up to that point, or had never seen any theatre, film, or television, and were unaware of how Western drama functions. Indeed, the lack of subtlety is akin to the scene in Red Dragon where Philip Seymour-Hoffman is tied to a chair, forced to watch a slide show of murder scenes, and asked, “Do you see? Do you see?” Yes, we cannot help but see.
Putting aside this unnecessary obviousness, Hyena is a valuable movie, some of the best qualities of which are the ways in which it frustrates or upsets expectations. The story begins with Michael in business with a Turkish drug lord with plans afoot to expand their international smuggling operation. However, his life of shakedowns and drug-fueled parties is thrown into disarray when two new gangsters, Albanian brothers, move into his patch and cancel this current business arrangement with a baseball bat.
The violence in Hyena is exceptional. There is rape, murder, and dismemberment, and for good measure a murder so ferocious that it unexpectedly ends in dismemberment. In that particular instance the act itself is not shown, but the aftermath is and graphically so. Brutality of this boldness and intensity is usually the reserve of horror movies. Hyena, though, is an adult drama which uses violence to help create an atmosphere that is a vital element of the story. Violence is as part of the London of Hyena as the weather.
This is a world with no obviously decent characters. The cops are as depraved as the criminals they extort, each playing to his own end, having long ago forgotten any attestation to serve the law. The two main female protagonists are the closest Hyena gets to a moral centre. Perhaps that centre is Lisa, Michael's girlfriend of sorts and partner in his drugs business? She shows concern as events spiral out of control, but she is a drug dealer and it's difficult to tell whether her anxiety is due to an attack of scruples or fear for her own well-being. And then there is Ariana, a young Albanian woman sold into the sex trade by the brothers. Again though, it may be wrong to mistake her suffering and desire to escape her horrifying situation for morality.
What Ariana does offer Michael, though, is a chance for some kind of redemption as he tries to save her. It's a well worn device. A vulnerable woman somehow engenders tenderness in the hardened, world-weary rogue, awakening a part of him he had long thought dead. See Hyena's conspicuous cousin Bad Lieutenant for a similar MacGuffin of absolution and destruction. It's not such a lazy comparison. With their extreme treatment of their subject matter and their singular portraits of unforgiving metropolitan landscapes, the two films share more than just a sub-genre.
The cast ofHyena is outstanding. Peter Ferdinando is remarkable as Michael. He manages to articulate the character's slide from bullying self-confidence to desperation and cold sweat with incredible skill. Viewers familiar with Ferdinando as the title character in director Gerard Johnson's previous feature, London serial killer horror, Tony, will marvel at his physical transformation from Tony to Michael. He is unrecognisable.
Ferdinando is more than supported by the rest of the cast which includes Stephen Graham (Boardwalk Empire, This is England) and Neil Maskell (Kill List). Graham is one of the UK's most compelling actors, and both are capable of leading a movie in their own right. Here Graham plays David Knight, Michael's superior, and the scenes between the two are brilliantly uncomfortable.
The direction of Gerard Johnson shows great range. The prenominate violence is at times stylised and cinematic (there is at least one visual reference to A Clockwork Orange), at other points shocking for its realism. Related to that, some of Hyena's most disarming scenes involve the chatter and blokeish banter between Michael's fellow officers, his gang of state sanctioned thugs. There's a naturalism to their back and forth, and their overdriven machismo. To witness it feels like eavesdropping. It's a technique which helps to ground the movie and heighten the impact of the more dramatic scenes.
At a time when so much entertainment is created by consensus, Hyena is refreshing. The griminess and barbarity of the movie will be a turn off for casual movie fans. The ending will be thoroughly irritating to anyone who demands a 'well crafted' three act structure. Ultimately, though, this is art that doesn't pander, and as such Hyena is a crime drama that audiences will be enjoying for many years to come.