“If you want to try and teach someone about Canada, you go to the television Saturday night and it becomes crystal clear.” Ron Maclean says these words in a Rogers advertisement for the 2016-2017 season of Hockey Night in Canada, positing that Canada’s pastime is the key to understanding the country’s identity. Kevan Funk agrees that hockey defines Canada, but he doesn’t take that as such a sunny statement. His debut feature, Hello Destroyer, agrees that hockey is a way to understand Canada, but focuses on the game’s violence and toxic masculinity. If hockey defines Canada, then Canada is a nation of blood, sweat, and tears.
Smartly, Hello Destroyer doesn’t explore violence in merely a sociological sense, but in the form of a person: Tyson (Jared Abrahamson). As a rookie enforcer for the Prince George Warriors, Tyson is encouraged to be ferocious on the ice, but when one hit lands an opposing player in hospital, his coaches “indefinitely suspend” him and he waits around in the midterm, having no idea how to approach the future. Eventually, as it becomes clear the team will never take him back, he returns home and takes a job in a slaughterhouse. With no education and no skill set beyond hockey, he’s lost and frustrated, but with nowhere to channel that anger except inward.
This is an intense film about a young man who is encouraged to be violent and then punished for embracing that violence. It doesn’t take much to unpack the film’s metaphors—the fact that Tyson goes to work in a slaughterhouse after returning home is one of many blunt narrative devices—but that doesn’t detract from the film’s impact. Hello Destroyer is tough and aggressively depressing. It’s also honest about Canada in a way that most Canadian films never dare to be.
In particular, the dressing room scenes are scarily accurate for anyone who has spent countless hours in hockey rinks. The shift from exhalatory to nightmarish within seconds captures the way that the hockey environment is both invigorating and fueled by shame. For instance, in the second scene, the coach (Kurt Max Runte) lauds the team after a hard-fought win. Funk focuses on the exhausted camaraderie of the players as the captain gives a short speech and each player shoutout is followed by a chant. But within moments, the scene turns to humiliation as the senior players pin the rookies to the floor and shave their heads.
This is standard hazing, something the semi-professional hockey community publically denounces and privately embraces as harmless and even necessary to steel up players and bond the team. Of course, this is only stage one of Funk’s assault on our national institution. The way he shoots the scene, focusing on Abrahamson’s expressions of pained resignation and rage, makes it look like sexual assault. The violence escalates from there.
I admire how focused Hello Destroyer is. There are no subplots and side characters are ignored in favour of Tyson, who is in almost every frame. Funk’s camera shoots most of the film in medium close-up, tracking Tyson from behind as he goes about his empty days.The restricted visual style and narrative keep the themes front and centre. But there are also drawbacks to this approach.
There is a lagging sense of rhythm, shots that last a few seconds too long, and an abundance of dead space, visually, narratively, and emotionally. You can also tell this film expands on a short film, as the narrative economy befits a runtime shorter than 110 minutes.
Still, Abrahamson is a promising actor and Kevan Funk knows how to convey a message, albeit bluntly. This is a film that understands Canada without resorting to tired cliches about our national character. It’s unrelenting in a way more Canadian films need to be.
7 out of 10
Hello Destroyer (2017, Canada)
Written and directed by Kevan Funk; starring Jared Abrahamson, Kurt Max Runte, Joe Buffalo, Paul McGillion, Ian Tracey, Ben Cotton, Sara Canning.