Matt Stone and Trey Parker once said that they could take the script for Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, shoot it exactly as written on the page, and turn it into a comedy. One imagines they would see similar potential in Hyena Road, a screed about the toughness of the combat soldier that hustles a drum-heavy, blaring score through nearly every one of its incoherent, handheld battle scenes of shouting Canadian soldiers and perpetually exploding IEDs. In fact, it’s as if writer-director Paul Gross took notes during Team America: World Police and tried to pull that film’s reverse by omitting any semblance of satire from Hyena Road, so that when a soldier yells, “Kill every fucker that comes through that door!,” it’s meant to be gripping rather galling.
The film’s opening sets a tiresome tone, as a military sniper, Sanders (Rossif Sutherland), eyes an Afghan fighter through his scope and fires a single round, with the camera exuberantly swirling around the slain victim as if servicing an instant replay. Gross situates the film’s events somewhere between violent, militaristic fantasy and gentler, anti-war lament, a gap that the filmmakers seek to bridge by placing all of their thematic interests into the mouths of introspective soldiers, who talk to one another as if they’ve all had a sleepless night writing speeches. Captain Mitchell (Gross) is especially guilty in this regard, as his scenes regularly end in close-up, with him explaining to a fellow officer how much he “believes in this place” or asserting a soldier’s “helluva rough road” to safety. The film’s title refers to Mitchell’s mission, which is to secure the territory long enough to complete construction, though those parameters often dissolve within numerous firefights, which are overlaid with stock Middle-Eastern chants that offer Muslim culture as an uncomplicated harbinger of terrorist doom.
Scenes meant to be surreal or off-beat tritely telegraph the ephemerality of momentary pleasures, like one featuring a platoon dancing in the desert with a few Afghanis to “Play That Funky Music”; that one scene is immediately followed by one that replaces the dance track with ominous chanting, as convoys head into the heart of Kandahar. Ill-conceived subplots abound, including Sanders’s relationship with Captain Bowman (Christine Horne), who finds out she’s pregnant with their child. Just a few moments earlier, Sanders is seen preparing to masturbate, via webcam, to Mary (Jennifer Pudavick), his girlfriend back home. She asks him if he misses “these,” referring to her breasts, as she quickly disrobes to display them, but rather than examine how sexual difference within the military informs contemporary relationships, Hyena Road plays dumb and quickly gets back to the shooting.
On an unlikely side note, Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson were hired to make a half-hour documentary about Hyena Road’s production, titled Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton, which recasts scenes from Gross’s film with lasers and a synth score. At one point in the doc, Maddin walks through the desert, trailed by someone holding a green screen, and wonders, in voiceover, if an “aggressively artificial score” can’t “force viewers into intellectual confrontation with the images—force viewers to sort truth from fiction for themselves?” Maddin’s deliberately silly, pseudo-philosophical musings suggest more about the burden of suffering, whether physical or psychological, in 15 seconds than Gross manages in two hours.