Written and directed by Gerard Johnson
Hyena, the second feature from London-born director Gerard Johnson, opens with a slow motion raid on a neon-blue nightclub. The four men who carry it out are inebriated – a mixture of drink and drugs – and meet wordlessly en route in a small, plain car. When they park in an alleyway and pull on police gear, your first instinct is that they’re faking it, putting on masks. But it transpires that they really are policeman, just the kind that employ violence indiscriminately and abuse their authority to take a cut from local gangs. As one character later comments, you’d think policemen like them wouldn’t exist.
This opening sequence is filmed with a measured sense of detachment. The club is all light and movement; the blows, slowed down, don’t seem to connect, even as the bodies fly across the floor. It’s like a live action video game or, more pertinently, a cocaine high. Johnson’s style emphasises the policemen’s withdrawal from reality, living a fantasy of drug abuse, criminality and violence, even as they go about their work at the precinct. They feel powerful, above both the gangs and the law, but ultimately they’re petty crooks, ravaged by addiction and vice.
Hyena focuses on the group’s leader, Michael Logan, who’s played with subtlety and restraint by Peter Ferdinando. Michael emerges as something of an exception, not because he doesn’t take part in the corruption – in fact he dominates it – but because he’s aware of his own weaknesses and retains the husk of a moral code. To him, acts of extreme violence are always horrifying, particularly when they’re directed towards women and even when he carries them out himself. In this environment, that attitude is startlingly unique.
At the beginning of the film, we discover that Michael has put £100,000 into establishing a trafficking route, which aims to bring a ready supply of women and drugs to the UK. Everything is going according to plan when his Turkish associate is butchered by two Albanian brothers, Nikolla and Rezar Kabashi (Orli Shuka and Gjevat Kelmendi). They take over the route, so Michael is forced to become their acquaintance in order to protect his investment. The picture is complicated further by the return of an old colleague (Stephen Graham), who Michael once took action against for raping a minor. Having moved on and built a successful career in Brussels, his motivations for coming back are unclear. However, he’s running an operation that specifically targets the Albanians and his first move is to regain Michael’s trust.
The action takes place in a sprawling, unknowable London, at once recognisable but seen in an unfamiliar light. It’s multicultural, in the basest sense of the word, starkly divided by class and nationality, the fault lines of British politics. All the characters, no matter what their position, renounce their superiors and manipulate the impotent legal system. Institutionalised corruption has eroded legitimate power, leaving only a criminal anarchy. When Michael boasts, referring to the police, that he has 33,000 in his gang, it’s little more than empty bravado. When it comes down to it, he’s lucky if he has anyone at his back, even when what he’s doing seems legitimate.
The various factions do have one thing in common and that’s violence. There are cultural distinctions – the Albanians favour the blade, the police the blunt instrument – but everybody resorts to it when they need to. With beheadings, dismemberments and scenes of orgiastic brutality, Hyena can be difficult to watch. However, Johnson consistently condemns the violence, along with virtually everything else on screen. The most disturbing scene by far is shot with an artless naturalism, emphasising the depraved and monstrous depths that man can sink to.
Hyena holds up well against a strong line of recent British genre films. Like Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (starring Neil Maskell and MyAnna Buring, who both feature prominently here), it combines black humour and kitchen sink realism with flashes of explosive violence. It’s undeniably more plot-driven and grounded in reality, its artistic flourishes are fewer and less dominant. However, the ending is one of them, slowing everything, including the score, to the rhythm of human breathing. It appears to deny any possibility of justification and seals the moral vacuum indefinitely. Johnson consigns his world to the cruelty, misogyny and corruption that has been piling up.