‘Hyena Road’: TIFF Review

Hyena Road Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Impactful, but already dated. 

Paul Gross writes and directs his second feature focusing on Canadians entrenched in overseas warfare.

Paul Gross’ Passchendaele, a World War I drama based on his grandfather’s combat experience in Europe, played TIFF in 2008 and this year Gross returns with a feature about Canadian troops fighting the war in Afghanistan. A big-budget international production seeking to play on a level similar to recent Hollywood movies, Hyena Road may come across as somewhat dated following the drawdown of international troops in the region, particularly as the anarchic depredations of Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria begin to rival the scope and brutality of any other major Mideast conflict. While Canadians will likely be supportive of the film, response elsewhere may be muted by combat-movie fatigue.

Gross dips into the timeline of the seemingly intractable war in Afghanistan as coalition forces led by NATO and the US are still well-entrenched in a continuing battle to eradicate Taliban forces from the countryside. Stationed with Canadian ground troops at Kandahar airfield, Ryan Sanders (Rossif Sutherland) leads a team of snipers protecting construction crews building a highway through the interior of the country, colloquially known as Hyena Road. Taking refuge in a rural village during a Taliban ambush, they’re given sanctuary by a local tribal elder, a tactic that forces the guerilla fighters to retreat. Back at base, Sanders reports on the details of the attack to his commanding officer Jennifer Bowman (Christine Horne), who also happens to be his girlfriend. Their romance, initiated months before while on leave, has reached a critical juncture and Bowman is contemplating breaking it off before her superiors get wind of the unsanctioned relationship.

Pete Mitchell (Gross) also approaches Sanders for debriefing, convinced the skirmish may provide information on the rumored return of a legendary mujahideen, known as “The Ghost” (Niamatullah Arghandabi). Mitchell recruits Sanders to flush out the former warlord who helped expel the Soviets from Afghanistan decades earlier, believing he could prove a powerful ally capable of helping to pacify the diverse militant factions seeking to destabilize the nascent Afghan government. Belatedly realizing that Mitchell is actually a military intelligence officer whose agenda could distract from his primary security mission and allegiance to his troops, Sanders struggles to grasp the full scope of the clandestine operation that Mitchell is drawing him into, as a deadly confrontation among the various factions appears increasingly likely.

Striving more for the heroic tone of Zero Dark Thirty than the moral ambiguity of The Hurt Locker, Gross’ script realistically depicts the uncertain and frequently shifting alliances that characterized the Afghan conflict’s security situation, as coalition troops attempt to separate allies from opponents among questionably reliable factions in the local government, military and militias. Gross is fond of providing observations on the war from an historical perspective as Mitchell comments in voiceover on the history of warfare in Afghanistan and the repeated failures of armies from Alexander the Great to the mighty Soviet regime to conquer the country’s resourceful population and notoriously challenging terrain.

These frequent asides dovetail with a running debate between Sanders and Mitchell regarding the most effective approach to pacifying the country, with Sanders favoring direct intervention and Mitchell advocating more nuanced, strategic alliance-building. Both agree, however, that Canadian troops and coalition forces have productively intervened in Afghanistan to help stabilize the country after years of internecine warfare, a perspective that seems curiously outdated in the complicated aftermath that’s followed the withdrawal of most international forces.

Geopolitical speculation aside, Gross makes a persuasive case for the bravery and sacrifice of Canadian troops serving during the Afghanistan conflict. Sutherland’s Sanders represents the dutiful combat soldier who grows more uncertain about his responsibilities with each new revelation about the ambiguous nature of his mission. Gross gives Mitchell’s military intelligence officer a hard-won cynicism that may represent the most realistic perspective on the conflict, but one that’s only marginally constructive. Horne strikes an uneasy balance between official duty and personal loyalty in Bowman’s relationship with her subordinate Sanders, a rather maudlin subplot that eventually generates a major payoff in the film’s final scenes.

Shooting the Afghanistan exteriors in Jordan, Gross meticulously re-creates the circumstances and setting that coalition forces under NATO and US command encountered in Kandahar, even going so far as to build a replica command center and barracks. Skillfully staged, high-intensity firefights heighten the impact of Gross’ action sequences as Canadian troops confront armed insurgents and attempt to evade frequent bombing attacks. Director of photography Karim Hussain and editor David Wharnsby capably capture the adrenaline rush of combat and maintain crucial continuity during the frequent, chaotic battle scenes.


Production companies: Rhombus Media, Triple 7 Films

Cast: Rossif Sutherland, Paul Gross, Christine Horne, Niamatullah Arghandabi, Nabil Elouahabi, David Richmond-Peck, Karl Campbell, Allan Hawco, Clarke Johnson           

Director-writer: Paul Gross

Producers: Niv Fichman, Paul Gross

Executive producers: Victor Loewy, Frank Siracusa, Mirwais Alizai, Aaron L. Gilbert, Jason Cloth

Director of photography: Karim Hussain

Production designer: Arv Greywal

Costume designer: Katelynd Johnston

Editor: David Wharnsby

Music: Asher Lenz, Stephen Skratt

Sales: CAA, WT Films


No rating, 120 minutes