Hyena. 2014. Directed & Written by Gerard Johnson.
Starring Peter Ferdinando, Stephen Graham, Neil Maskell, Elisa Lasowski, MyAnna Buring, Richard Dormer, Gordon Brown, Tony Pitts, Orli Shuka, Gjevat Kelmendi, Thomas Craig, Lorenzo Camporese, Shaban Arifi, Alfred Doda, and Mem Ferda.
Film4/Number 9 Films.
Unrated. 112 minutes.
With the endorsement of Nicolas Winding Refn right on the film’s poster, there is no doubt in my mind anyone who has seen the Pusher trilogy will definitely find a likeness here in Hyena. I don’t find any crossover in terms of ripping it off, though, but merely the situations and feel of the plot definitely have that sort of vibe, a very realistic and low budget rawness that Refn also had in his crime films.
The last film Gerard Johnson wrote and directed, also starring Peter Ferdinando, was an amazing dive into the black mind of a quiet serial killer living in a tiny council flat, Tony (you can find my review here). I absolutely loved that one and I’m inclined to enjoy this even more. While the Refn vibe is absolutely present, I feel between Ferdinando’s acting and the directing/writing on the part of Johnson this movie takes on a life of its own without having to rely on predecessors with similar style.
Hyena is a savagely intense, visceral crime thriller in regards to its plot and story. At the same time, Johnson instils his film with an incredible amount of visual flair. Not only is there a gritty, raw style, Johnson opts for a lot of great imagery often involving colour and shadow. Most of all, the character Ferdinando plays and the story surrounding him is enough to hold you for a little under two hours. Not once was I bored, between the screenplay’s action, its turns, and the high tension involved as the stakes for the main character seem to never stop skyrocketing, right up until the bitter end.
Michael (Peter Ferdinando) is a detective in London, his crew includes Martin (Neil Maskell) and Keith (Tony Pitts) among others. On his own, Michael takes care of the Turkish criminals as much as he can, getting a piece of the action. When several Albanians murder one of his Turks in horrific fashion while Michael watches on in hiding, things begin to change. At first it’s merely the disappearing presence of the Turkish criminals he’d been dealing with all along. Soon, Michael himself becomes the target of another law enforcement officer with whom he has history, Nick Taylor (Richard Dormer).
Forced into dealing with the same Albanians which he was forced to watch murder his Turkish friend, Michael enters into a scarily tenuous relationship with these newly moved in gangsters. What follows is part crisis of conscience, part survival of the fittest, as Michael must figure out how to live off the scraps of all the carcasses beginning to pile up and topple into the streets.
Something I thought that’s more evident here, both explicitly and implicitly, is how the brutality amongst the gangsters in the world of Hyena feels even more vicious than anything in Refn’s Pusher films (not knocking them because they’re some of my favourite crime films ever). For instance, the Albanian gangsters are pretty damn awful with their level of savagery. One early scene just after the first half hour sees a woman at their hands get cut them her wound is salted (I think it’s salt; could also be detergent of some kind) – it’s like another day at the office for them, each stone faced and uncaring, almost enjoying watching the woman’s pain. Not everything is perfectly explicit, as I said; some of the violence comes offscreen. Like when Michael’s Turkish gangster friend gets chopped by the Albanians. Though, we do see the aftermath, the actual violence itself is offscreen, which is something I’ve always found effective: show us the consequences, let us deal with those, but refrain from showing the acts of violence themselves. There’s a particular sort of gravitas that comes out of that technique I find works well for certain films. In Hyena, writer-director Johnson serves his film and story greatly by not having all the violence and murder displayed openly. Instead he sort of edges along the cliff – giving us pieces now and then, to satisfy the bloodlust, then merely teasing us, wetting our beaks slightly in order to ramp up the tension. It’s the same way Johnson went about his previous serial killer flick Tony, which didn’t have as much blood and violence in it as you’d expect for a story like that; he reveals only what is necessary to keep the tension and the suspense flowing at high volume.
As for the previous Johnson film, musician Matt Johnson composed the perfectly fitting score for Hyena. Some of the pieces he put into the score are beyond foreboding and full of darkness. As I always say, a movie that has music which compliments its visual style can really create an intense atmosphere and tone. One aspect of this movie I love is the ever pervading atmosphere that keeps us uneasy, unsettled, as if anything might happen at any time – particularly anything bad. The score has plenty of interesting sections. Some are full of this pulsing electronic rhythm, many others have this mysterious thriller styled music with beautiful foreign instrumentation and percussion which really puts you in the middle of these Albanian run neighbourhoods, the Turkish spots, et cetera. You almost get, in the music alone, a look into the multicultural side of London; albeit the gritty, criminal side, but still it’s fascinating stuff. I think my favourite bits, though, are the electronic pieces in the score because there’s a wildly scary quality just through these sounds which helps Johnson easily put together shots to hold us in that place of stasis he needs. Then when Johnson uses the visuals again to bring us out of that lull and SLAM US with something intense and visceral, the music also pumps up the emotion and the film charges at us in these moments. Another great instance of a film where audio and visual elements work together creating a wonderful atmosphere, as well as this combination helps set and hold a tone the director aims to attain.
My favourite instance of this involves a MASSIVE SPOILER – when Michael (Ferdinando) takes David Knight (Stephen Graham) to meet the Albanians, and as David is violently murdered Johnson slows everything down – time nearly stands still, the scene happens in slow motion while the score is just mesmerizing. You won’t believe it until you see it. Afterwards, the music still pumping, Michael runs and runs down the streets of London, fast as he can. It’s an incredible sequence which starts a minute or so before the one hour fifteen minute mark.
Peter Ferdinando does a great job with his character Michael. Further than that, I think the character itself was written well by Gerard Johnson. There’s parts of Michael with which I found myself empathizing – he’s sort of trying to stay relevant while also hoping to keep alive and out of jail. Other times, I wondered how the hell he managed to get himself down into the dirty quicksand so abruptly. Michael also seems to me like someone who can be slightly naive at times, even for such an obviously seasoned detective, no stranger to dealing with violent, insane criminals; he willingly walks himself into too much at various times throughout Hyena. However, despite the character’s flaws Ferdinando plays him spot on. I love the last ten minutes of the film because you can almost chew on the tension watching Michael, it’s all in his face and his eyes, everything about him speaks to how strained and stressed this man is, which makes you feel as if you’re sitting right alongside him. Ferdinando does great things as an actor with plenty of range in him, from this to Tony alone he has proved to be fantastic.
This is a 5 star crime thriller film to me. Not much out there in the past couple years as good and slick as this, nor as interesting in terms of visuals and the score. Tons of great things happening underneath the surface. Some critics and filmgoers online would have you believe the ending is not satisfying. Me, I’m the type of person who also loved The Sopranos and how it ended. There’s something about the last few moments, watching Michael, the music washing in over us again heavier, heavier, then when things come to a head and the credits cut in I feel more satisfied than anything. Sure, there are no concrete answers, but think about it: can you imagine ANY situation in which Michael would’ve been all right afterwards? There’s no possible scenario that would’ve worked out appropriately for him in the end, so Gerard Johnson gave us a poignant, quiet end with no resolutions only an anticipation of the WORST TO COME. I love the way the credits come in afterwards, the title card nice and stylized in blue ink, and there’s an amazing song playing in the background.
See this and enjoy it or not – one of the greatest crime thriller films of the last 5 years easily. I can only hope others might find the same fascinating elements in Hyena that I have. So far, I’ve seen this about a handful of times now and I highly suggest heading over to iTunes at some point soon for a copy. I’m definitely going to watch it again soon.. again.