By Jonathan Lawrence
When I asked Paul Gross – director, writer and actor in Hyena Road, the story of a Canadian sniper company in Afghanistan – if the reported struggles he faced during the making the film was a Hearts of Darkness-type situation, he assured me that the actual shooting went smoothly. However, the real battle was making the intense, effects-heavy war film on a mere $12.5 million budget – minuscule compared to a typical Hollywood action flick.
Somehow, he makes it work – Hyena Road is proof that films can be intense, dramatic, well-written and informed even on a meagre budget.
Hyena Road isn’t your typical war film. This is a film about choices soldiers make and their repercussions. Actor Rossif Sutherland stated that one of the goals of the film was to display the human side of the soldiers on the front line. While we’ve seen this theme in other media such as Fury or Band of Brothers, it still felt fresh and inspired. At the end of the day, they’re still people, as capable of making lapses in judgment as anyone, and we see the impact of their choices throughout the course of the story – sometimes for good, sometimes not. That said, the characters don’t have a lot of depth – they’re essentially military archetypes – but that’s okay, it’s effective nonetheless. I’ve never seen the Canadian military portrayed this way, and I felt proud and in awe. At the same time, Gross doesn’t force Canadian patriotism and it’s much more profound as a result.
Technically, the film is a mixed bag. The sound design is stunning: the resonating echo of a sniper rifle fired in a desolate Afghan canyon sounds incredibly rich and vivid. The cinematography is perhaps the film’s weakest point, which alternates between beautiful shots of Afghan landscapes one moment and jarring documentary-style camera movement the next. The film would have greatly benefited from a more consistent look, because its gritty subject material seems right out of a documentary. Gross boldly showed us sides of Afghanistan not often shown onscreen. One scene near the end of the film was especially shocking, and I respect his decision to not pull any punches.
Gross has created an engrossing world where risks can’t be taken, calculated strategies can go awry in an instant, and losses go hand-in-hand with victories. Fans of intelligent war films such as Zero Dark Thirty or Platoon should certainly check out Hyena Road.AB, Alberta, Calgary International Film Festival, CIFF, CIFF 2015, Hyena Road