“Hyena Road,” the new war film starring, written and directed by Paul Gross, opens with a heart stopping sniper sequence. Rossif Sutherland is Ryan Sanders of the Canadian Armed Forces and a crack shot. He eliminates a Taliban target only to find himself and his team up against a much larger group of insurgents. Seeking safety, they take refuge offered by a mysterious villager, who may or not be on their side.
It’s a wildly effective introduction to the world of “Hyena Road.” It sets up the complicated nature of the warfare and shifting alliances in that part of the world. It’s exciting and kicks off the search for a mysterious mujahideen, known as The Ghost (Niamatullah Arghandabi). High-ranking officer Pete Mitchell (Gross) is convinced The Ghost, a legendary former warlord, is the key to establishing peace—or something close to it—between the diverse factions who seek to destabilize the government.
On a less geopolitical level Sanders is romantically involved with his commanding officer, Jennifer Bowman (Christine Horne), and the couple must decide whether or not their relationship will get in the way of being effective soldiers.
Gross, who based the screenplay on conversations he had with Canadian troops in Afghanistan, hasn’t made a war film in the traditional sense. He clearly has great affection for the Canadians who serve but isn’t afraid to highlight the ambiguity of the missions Mitchell is sanctioning. It’s a complicated part of the world, but this isn’t a complicated movie. It’s a film that clearly and concisely states its thesis that this conflict isn’t a matter of winners or losers, but of uncertainty that will eventually lead to an end state. In that way it’s more “Zero Dark Thirty” than “American Sniper.”
“Hyena Road” doesn’t maintain the urgency of its opening moments and the romantic subplot feels unnecessary (although it eventually delivers an emotional wallop) but for all the war movie cliché it embraces, it avoids others—like xenophobia and noble warrior banalities—to paint a picture of the difficulty in fighting a war in very confusing times.