“Hello Destroyer” won all five awards that it was nominated for at the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. (Courtesy of Tabula Dada)
“Hello Destroyer” is not your father’s hockey movie. Moving past the light and funny fare of “The Mighty Ducks” or even the dark humor of “Slap Shot,” this film is an unflinchingly depressing look into the effect of toxic masculinity and violence in hockey. While it does succeed at portraying the dark underbelly of the junior hockey world to an extent, it commits a cardinal hockey mistake: it cannot stay engaged for the full runtime.
Directed and written by Kevan Funk, “Hello Destroyer” was released to much acclaim in 2016 as a statement on institutionalized violence that is so uniquely Canadian. “Hello Destroyer” won best film at both the Leo Awards and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. The awards are not undeserved – it is a good film, and one that explores a hot-button topic in the sport, but it is not a great film.
A junior hockey player finds his life torn to shreds in front of him after he lays an ill-timed hit on an opposing player that lands him in the hospital with horrific injuries. Tyson Burr (Jared Abrahamson), for much of the 110-minute runtime, adjusts to a life on the periphery of the fraternity and hero worship of hockey players. He is ostracized by not only the community, but by his team and his parents.
Further complicating matters, it is implied that Burr suffered a concussion in the opening scene of the film.
The film is shot to make the viewer seem like a voyeur. The camera will settle and the actors walk in and out of shot, at either a close-up or standard distance. When it works, in the cases of close-ups, it works especially well. When it does not, it leads to a lack of clarity as to what is going on.
Abrahamson is a revelation as the conflicted Burr. This is just as well, as “Hello Destroyer” also operates as a character study of a young man in turmoil. He acts without overdoing it and creates a delicate and realistic portrait. His heartbreak at finding out the harm he caused is palpable – Abrahamson does well with conveying emotion in such a stark film. Burr is a wholly sympathetic character. He asks how the other player is doing throughout the film, and is genuinely devastated to have hurt him so badly. However, “Hello Destroyer” sees to it that Burr never has the opportunity to atone for his crimes.
The film is mostly silent, carried by Burr wandering around the bleak Canadian town that he has been cast out of. This is where the film starts to drag; although scenes tend to wrap up quickly, sometimes there are long stretches where the audience watches nothing happen. Although it serves to complete the portrait, it is not necessary to dwell on Burr running at a treadmill during his exile.
When “Hello Destroyer” has a plot, it is a very good one. Fallouts are interesting to watch, especially as viewers can recognize the transparency of the actions of others. Burr’s hockey team suspends him indefinitely to save their own hides, all under the guise of culpability. They release a statement with Burr’s name stamped on it, the kicker being that it was written by the team’s attorney.
“All you need to do is step back,” Burr’s coach says. And when it becomes inconvenient to have Burr on the team for any longer, they excise him and cast him aside. Burr finds himself ignored by his coach, thrown out of the house he is staying in and screamed at by his parents for all of the trouble he has caused.
It is true; Burr has caused trouble and ruined someone else’s life. But the film argues that Burr is less complicit in the actions that follow than his team or coach is. After all, his coach was the one who goaded him to be more aggressive along the boards. “Hello Destroyer” never outright condemns hockey’s tendency to glorify violence. Rather than do that, Funk chooses to simply portray it and let viewers come to their own conclusions.
In the ensuing roll of misfortune, the only comfort to come Burr’s way is his friendship with an older man who has lost just as much. These scenes are almost hopeful, and it seems for a while that Burr might be alright just like his coaches and parents promised. Of course, those scenes are tinged with sadness of their own and Burr falls into even deeper despair.
Although “Hello Destroyer” is a necessary film, it needed to be a more gripping one. Abrahamson can only carry it for so long before his back hurts from doing so.