“You need to keep me sweet,” amoral vice cop Michael Logan hisses to two confused, machete-wielding Albanian thugs. The detective’s English slang, perhaps obfuscated by a thick brogue throughout the picture, means he’s going to need a taste. The Albanians have forged new drug trafficking routes, Logan’s discovered them and if they want the shady law enforcer to continue turning a blind eye to their crimes, they’d better pay the piper. However, since the Albanians are unconscionably ruthless sociopaths who tolerate Logan rather than let him dictate terms, this chaotic situation of his own making is not going to go over well. And it doesn’t, only becoming viciously worse, and, for Logan, an even more depraved moral morass to descend into.
Directed by Gerard Johnson (the man behind the grisly 2009 London serial killer film “Tony”), his sophomore film “Hyena” is an occasionally frustrating, but nonetheless strikingly nihilistic effort. It’s a typically gritty movie that says very little about the corrupt cop genre that we haven’t seen before, but its convincingly sordid milieu, strong performance by lead Peter Ferdinando and electric nightlife formalism do make a strong case to keep you compelled. Like an guttery English “Bad Lieutenant,” Logan is a venal cop lining his pockets with cash by working complicity with Turkish gangsters. He has his crew of street cop underlings (one of them played by “Kill List” actor Neil Maskell) who do his bidding, and they enjoy the spoils from the various catches of the day: drugs, alcohol, cash and more. But while living it up, Logan’s already dangerously close to the edge. A bitter internal affairs investigator (Richard Dormer from “Game of Thrones”) is already smelling their dirt in the air and senior officers aren’t blind to his sleazy activities either.
As Logan’s toxic duplicity gets more complicated, his relatively easy life of skimming off the top drastically changes when a duo of Albanian thugs literally slaughter Logan’s Turkish partner right before his eyes. But this brutal act does little to deter the crooked cop. And Logan’s situation only escalates when an old police adversary (Stephen Graham) is hired to head up the task force investigating the very Albanians that Logan is now in cahoots with (yes, he unwisely changes teams). And a young Albanian woman sold into sexual slavery that he crosses paths with during these shady dealings begins to awaken whatever fleeting embers of conscience the officer has left. Perhaps predictably, things go from bad to worse, Logan crosses lines one cannot safely return from and finds extricating himself from the marshy, self-made predicament is next to impossible.
Co-starring Elisa Lasowski and MyAnna Buring, the scuzzy setting of “Hyena” is awfully familiar, yet still engrossing. Like an Abel Ferrara classic filtered through the grimy lens of British kitchen-sink realism and the stylish “Pusher” films of Nicolas Winding Refn, “Hyena” seems built from other touchstones which has its pluses and minuses. The plot is admittedly derivative and it doesn’t take a CSI detective to figure out the kinds of vile depths the anti-hero protagonist is going to plumb.
To this end, a film like this can be easily lost in the shuffle of a McFestival with over 300 films. But on its own terms, “Hyena” takes a familiar story and imbues it with a memorably cold and sweaty dread that’s hard to shake. Johnson’s strength as a filmmaker is orchestrating the coiling tension and anxiety that acts as a serpentine noose wrapping slowly Logan’s neck. The grimy aesthetics are top notch too. Visually, Benjamin Kracun’s cinematography is either a gorgeously chilly neon of midnight streaked lights or a dead cold texture that underscores the movie’s dread. Johnson knows sound-design too, and the subconsciously creepy and unsettling acoustics of his movie go a long way to infer the desired ill-at-ease effect. The director’s form is generally acute even as his script is conventional.
But most of all as Logan, the pale Peter Ferdinando sells the movie with a poisonous air of persuasive desperation and queasy unraveling. His dishonest cop is a train wreck waiting to flip the track, and the actor (featured in Ben Wheatley‘s “A Field in England” and his upcoming film “High Rise“) resists the urge to paint Logan sympathetically or ask you to root for him. His redemption is forgone far too early; Ferdinando understands he’s beyond salvation. But it’s hard to take your eyes off the performer, all sickly and feral, as his fiendishly keyed-up character disintegrates.
Seedy, unsettling and nightmarish, director Gerard Johnson crafts a suspenseful and anxious journey despite the destination pointing to obvious points well known. “Hyena” may not be wholly original, but its cancerous tenor positions many of its various talents as ones to watch. Expect this one to go over like gangbusters next week at the genre-happy Fantastic Fest. [B]
Catch up on all our coverage of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival by clicking here.