EIFF 2014 Review: ‘Hyena’
Over the next 11 days I shall be checking out a few films from the 2014 Edinburgh International Film Festival. due to costs I won’t be seeing a huge amount (just seven films in total) but I’ll be posting the reviews for them all up here.
Apologises for the lack of pictures, there’s not many available at the moment.
Film Festivals are strange since most of them feature the first showings of a film so you have to rely on your gut to know if you’re going to like the film you’re about to see. Hyena sounded interesting, a corrupt cop whose life is invaded by a pair of Albanian brothers, so going on the assumption that most of the EIFF opening night films are strong (previous years had The Guard and Killer Joe which I both loved) I checked it out, and the result is quite good.
The one major area the film falls down on is the story, it’s not bad but it’s nothing you haven’t really seen before, corrupt cop has his life shattered by his own corruption. It does play things a little differently here though and it’s all to do with its main character Michael Logan. See Michael is a dirty cop, he drinks, he takes drugs, he steals money from the job and he’s in league with the Turkish Mafia working in London, however where Michael differs from most is that he’s a good cop, he actual does his job well, he may steal from drug dealers but he has to take them down first, he’s basically hiding in plain sight with only the office prick Taylor trying to take him down. He’s got a good thing going for him but that all changes when two Albanian Brother, Nikolla and Rezar Kabashi, arrive on the scene armed with a brutal attitude and a lack of morals, realising that the brothers are going to be taking over, Michael makes nice and agrees to help them take the territory, providing they include him in on the whole thing.
Things go well at first but Michael soon finds himself assigned to the task force designed to take the brothers down, led by David Knight, an old friend of Michael’s that got taken down by a bad mistake and who Michael left high and dry to save his own skin. Trying to appease both the brothers and the police, Michael’s action instead create a vortex of destruction as the brother’s don’t take too kindly to the infringement on their business and respond with violence and death, slowly destroying Michael’s comfortable life he’s set up for himself. Stressed, confused and stuck between two rocks and a hard prick, Michael has to make a decision about whether or not he should face his demons or continue down this dangerous path.
There’s also a side-story running parallel to Michael’s following Ariana, a former sex-slave turned office hostage working for the brothers who unwillingly gets thrown back into the life she hates by Michael’s actions and the brother’s suspicious natures. I would’ve liked to have seen more from her, the way the film was going she seemed to be the heart of the film after going through some really uncomfortable and actually very disturbing scenes but about 2/3rds in she takes a nap and doesn’t wake up till the end, it’s a missed opportunity that the film could’ve capitalised on.
It does follow the typical corrupt cop pattern but the inclusion of Michael’s hidden in plain sight attitude and the bloody and violent nature of the brothers gives it more to work with. I’m not too sure on the ending, not to give too much away but it seems to be building towards something that never comes but thinking about it, no matter what happens in the end Michael’s life has changed and he’s not coming out of this unscathed, it’s an ending that works in context but you have to think about it.
Acting wise the film’s pretty strong, it has some solid supporting roles, Michael’s crew is a fun lot that provide some humour to lighten the more brutal elements of the film, they share Michael’s corruption but are less careful about hiding. Lisa, Michael’s friend/possible girlfriend is a small but important character, she occasionally acts a rock to Michael to bring him back to reality, the film hints at a past relationship but doesn’t go into detail. The aforementioned Ariana, played by relative new-comer Elisa Lasowski, is one of the more interesting characters but as mentioned earlier she disappears just at the height of her story, this is a very tough role and Elisa goes through some of the hardest to watch scenes of the film but she holds her own and really makes you feel like this is a broken woman, I would’ve loved to have seen more of her.
On the villain side of things we firstly had Taylor (played by Richard Dormer who some may recognise as Beric Dondarrion from Game Of Thrones) who was just an absolute prick, from the minute he walks on-screen and gets pissed on by Michael you feel like he deserves it. The funny thing is, he’s trying to take Michael down for his corruption so he should be the good guy but his personality and the fact that he’s a prick hold him back.
David Knight – played by Stephen Graham, another recognisable face from Boardwalk Empire – is a little harder to place in the hero/villain camp at least until the end. While at first he appears to be the clean cop to Michael’s corrupt officer he soon shows that he not only knows about Michael’s extra-curricular activities but wants to be a part of it so they can pool their resources and take down the brothers. He’s a difficult man to read and you’re not sure whose side he’s on, he appears to be on Michael’s but he’s too shifty to be trusty and you keep your wits on him.
The brothers were as could be expected, brutal, violent, clever, they used fear to get what they wanted and they got it fast. Nikkola was the brains with Reznar acting as muscle but really they were as bad as each other, without mercy or morals, they hacked and chopped their way to power and continued hacking and chopping in order to stay there. It’s the unpredictability that made them such a threat to Michael, they rather kill someone – or at the very least take them out of the game – than be forced to deal with them through bribery or blackmail, they were very effective villains and provided true evil against Michael’s more morally grey area.
Michael himself is one of the most interesting anti-heroes I’ve seen, as I’ve mentioned above he’s as corrupt as they come, frequently taking drugs and using trickery to get ahead. However, his work on the job and his professionalism make him different from most other corrupt cops and it makes for an interesting dynamic. Part of the reason why it works is Peter Ferdinando’s ability to make Michael a truly professional character, both in the legal and illegal sides of things, he knows what he’s doing and has made a comfortable living out of it. The new found threat in the brothers pushes Michael to face his demons and the fact that he is a villain and a criminal, the added issue of Taylor closing in on him makes Michael’s life very difficult to handle and he eventually snaps, it’s a role that requires a subdued build-up but Ferdinando pulls it off exceedingly well, making Michael’s descent believable and entertaining, well maybe not entertaining but close enough.
The film is written and directed by Gerard Johnson, a man whose work I’ve never seen before but after this I’d like to, he’s got a very natural eye and can combined gritty realism with a distinctive style, think Snatch if done by way of Drive. I have to commend Johnson, when he goes realistic he actual does it realistically, unlike other films of the British Crime genre there’s no flash, no self-aware attitude, the main character isn’t some geezer with a wise-mouth, Michael and his team are regular guys doing a regular job in an irregular way, they live in crappy apartments, they celebrate in empty pubs with nothing but the snooker table for company, the brothels are quite dingy and dank, the money isn’t flashed around, it’s just there, it’s a film that takes a smaller approach to proceedings to that when time comes for a bigger moment it stand out all the more.
Those bigger moments are usually the ones that showcase the film’s signature style, an 80s infused intensity powered by neon and fear. The opening scene in particular sets the tone, with a growing techno soundtrack, Michael and his team attack a night-club, bathed in electric-blue and fueled in slow-motion the scene is dark, terrifying, sinister but most importantly unforgettable. The use of lights and sound are very important as they become almost a trigger for shit about to go down, the characters are covered by a harsh, neon light be it blue, green, red, it’s always a hard and uncompromising source of light bearing down over the characters, the soundtrack is this threatening techno style beat that grows in intensity and makes the feeling of dread build with the music until it becomes almost too much to handle, when they film goes to this place you know whatever happens, it’s not going to end pretty. The combination of realism and style makes for a film that draws you in with its corruption and morally apprehensible characters then sticks with you for a surprisingly high amount of tension and dread that grows in ways few directors have managed beforehand.
It’s also a particularly brutal and bloody film, not the worst I’ve ever seen for violence but it doesn’t hold back of the worst elements of life, Ariana’s storyline might just be one of the most uncomfortable moments I’ve ever seen but in terms of showing us a taste of how disgusting and horrendous her life is it’s pretty fucking effective. The violence, particularly those inflicted by the brothers, is often sick, twisted, bloody as hell and difficult to watch, much like the neon trigger for tension and dread, the bloody violence becomes an association of the brothers and you can’t see them without seeing them covered in blood, one moment about 2/3rds through the film has one of the most shocking scenes of the film, and one of the bloodiest, and it’s all down to the brothers.
Hyena is a good film but could’ve been better, the story is its weakest aspect, being too familiar to truly stand out but it works to hold the film together. It shines well in its characters, particularly Michael who right now stands as one of the best performances of the year, and in its direction which has an off mix of harsh realism with neon-infused dread and uncompromising brutality to create a film that doesn’t hold back on the worst society has to offer. It’s not a pretty film, but it never set out to be.