With his award nominated and acclaimed debut feature, Hello Destroyer, Vancouver filmmaker Kevan Funk has created one of the most pointed, poignant, and subtly unnerving films about Canada’s tenuous relationship to its unofficial national sport and greatest pastime. By using a tragic incident during a hockey game as a catalyst for a uniquely Canadian character study, Funk takes an in-depth and emotionally resounding look at a nation built on “institutions” and “traditions” that refuses to look at the problematic nature of such cultural touchstones. It’s a subtle, rigorous experience and unquestionably one of the best Canadian films of the year.
Tyson Burr (TIFF 2016 Rising Star and Canadian Screen Award nominee Jared Abrahamson) plays junior league hockey for the Prince George Warriors. Like most sports teams, the players on the team are hyped up and congratulated profusely by their coach when they win, and cruelly chastised whenever they’re losing. Late in a losing effort, Tyson, already seen by most of his teammates and coach as an enforcer type, commits a brutal, illegal hit on an opposing player that leads to an “indefinite suspension” while the team tries to save face. Tyson is left wondering what his life would be like without hockey in it. The sport is all he knows and the uncertainty leaves him just as shaken as the fateful on ice incident has.
Funk has crafted a sparse, intelligent film steeped in deeper meaning; one that doesn’t offer the viewer any easy answers, especially when it comes to questions of Canadian heritage. Hello Destroyer is the story of a young man who rightly or wrongly has seen the one thing he’s worked his entire life to achieve go away in a matter of seconds, while paying for his mistakes potentially for the rest of his life. It’s a film about hockey, but really you could substitute basically any sport. Funk never condones the film’s inciting incident, but wants the viewer to question the many ways it could have played out differently if everyone around Tyson understood the far reaching implications of his actions.
The film opens appropriately enough on Tyson engaging in an on-ice donnybrook, something that most people familiar with the sport of hockey wouldn’t blink an eye at. From there, the action moves to what seems like a fairly typical locker room in a junior hockey league. Tyson’s teammates act tough, and eventually haze the new guys by holding them down and shaving their heads. The coach spouts off a bunch of clichés about the benefits of teamwork, winning, and grinding it out for every inch of ice before bestowing a blatantly racist ceremonial indigenous headdress to the best player of the game (as potent a bit a symbolism for Canada’s selective cultural memory as anything I’ve seen so far this year). Wins are celebrated, practices come saddled with speeches from the coach about “historical significance,” and losing is not to be tolerated, often greeted with a slew of expletives and insults from the same coach. This is a cycle that continues unquestioned until Tyson’s hit, and it’s a moment that changes everything not only for the character, but also for the film around it. Tyson has been indoctrinated into a culture of clichés, and when he no longer has those comfortable, predictable dynamics to fall back on, he’s forced into living a troubled life where everyone around him refuses to understand nuance and intent. Tyson is guilty of the hit, but society is guilty of enabling Tyson in the first place.
It’s not an overstatement to say that hockey is everything to Tyson, but it’s also everything to those around him, who want to keep hockey in their lives, but they never want to acknowledge that what Tyson did was both wrong and something he was also conditioned to carry out. He’s a scapegoat for his team, and he’s vilified in the media, but in every other aspect of his life, Tyson is more or less a good person.
The question Funk asks with Hello Destroyer isn’t if the viewer can forgive Tyson, or if sporting institutions should be held more accountable for player actions on a larger scale, but if the audience is willing to look at all these issues, take in all the information of Tyson’s situation as presented, and then make a more informed decision about what they think is just and humane. It sounds easier than it looks, and Funk’s slow burning storytelling style is deliberately uncomfortable and intellectually confrontational. Hello Destroyer isn’t a passive viewing experience, and it deals with issues most people refuse to believe exist in a sport seen by many as a Canadian cultural touchstone. Hockey is seen as a bonding experience by the country at large; one of those chestnuts that binds the country together. Funk holds a mirror up to that experience and asks the audience to take as close a look as possible.
While Funk’s storytelling, direction, and visual eye are top notch, the film belongs to Abrahamson who gives an almost Brando level performance here. Tyson is a young man of few words, and Abrahamson has to convey every painful, conflicting emotion swirling around in the character’s head with looks, glances, and sighs. It’s a potent film already in terms of content, but Abrahamson turns Hello Destroyer into the powerhouse it needs to be.