There are quite a few movies about people going insane due to an unforeseen chain of events, e.g., Taxi Driver, The Shining, Barton Fink, Donnie Darko, Trainspotting, Videodrome, The Aviator, American Psycho, Mother!, Possession, Midsommar, Ingrid Goes West, and more. These types of movies are generally comprehensible and, at times, even relatable because life tends to introduce us to a downhill slide pretty often. Then there are movies that are meant to reflect the chaotic nature of life by rejecting traditional methods of storytelling and purposefully taking the narrative in weird and unexpected directions. The filmographies of David Lynch and Lars von Trier fall into this category. I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Primer, Vanilla Sky, Brazil, Ichi the Killer, Terrifier 2, Megalomaniac, Please Baby Please, Something in the Dirt, and Babysitter are worthy entries as well. The topic of today’s discussion, Destroy All Neighbors, exists somewhere in between these two subgenres.
Josh Forbes’ Destroy All Neighbors, which is written by Mike Brenner, Jared Logan, and Charles A. Pieper, tells the story of William, a progressive rock musician who works as a sound mixer for a music producer, Scott, and his star, Caleb Bang Jansen. William lives with his wife, Emily, in a dilapidated building that’s owned by Eleanor, who keeps treating William as the building’s handyman instead of hiring someone to do the job. Phillip and his pig are William’s neighbors, too. And while all of them intend to move out of there, Alec is the only one who manages to do the impossible after his script gets greenlit. William thinks that he’ll finally get to mix his songs at full volume. However, the new tenant, Vlad, enters the picture and starts being so loud that it becomes impossible for William to work from home. William bangs on the walls to intimidate Vlad, and that backfires on him. He calls the police on Vlad, and Vlad behaves so politely that it makes William look bad. Finally, William decides to confront Vlad, which turns into a play-fighting session and eventually leads to Vlad’s death. Surprisingly enough, when William tries to hide his crime, Vlad comes back to life.
Conceptually speaking, Destroy All Neighbors is similar to The Voices (a movie from a time when Ryan Reynolds used to act instead of just “being himself” in every role) in terms of how the central character loses his mind. But while The Voices had moments where it became apparent why the protagonist was losing his mind and the line between the protagonist’s perceived reality and everyone else’s reality was clearly drawn, the writers of Destroy All Neighbors don’t provide any such clarity. Hence, as the audience, you are compelled to hold onto William as he jumps from one wild indecision to another in the most random fashion imaginable. However, as the ordeal gets repetitive, I think you’ll begin to wonder why this guy is going through all this. The only explanation that I can come up with is that William’s whole arc is meant to show the growing insensitivity in society and how people aren’t really mindful of their surroundings—in apartments, to be specific. And when that triggering behavior is mixed with the anxiety caused by economic instability, capitalism, and the death of artistic integrity, things get too overwhelming to process. You can also say that since William, a white man who has benefited from the status quo, is affected much more by his surroundings than his POC neighbors, who have to tolerate much more than loud music, this is a commentary on what life is like for those in the majority community and those who are minorities.
Now, I don’t have any particular issue with what Destroy All Neighbors is trying to say, especially since it is up to the interpretation of the audience, and you can talk endlessly about the meaning behind William’s conversations with his victims. However, I have an issue with the overall presentation. Ironically enough, Vlad’s dialogue mixing is what hurts the viewing experience the most. Just to be clear, I watched the movie via a screener that didn’t have any subtitles. I am not sure what kind of accent Alex Winter is trying to pull off—it’s somewhere between a Scottish accent and a Russian accent—but I couldn’t understand a word of what he says. Hence, his conversations with William sound like noise. The other issue is the pacing. There’s no momentum in the story. Josh Forbes, along with cinematographer Will Stone, editor Hank Friedmann, and composers Ryan Kattner and Brett Morris, try to create chaos through randomness instead of a consistent and steady flow of mayhem. And while the practical effects, the VFX, the CGI, and the hair and make-up design are undoubtedly admirable (especially what they’ve done to make Winter look unrecognizable), it’s the lack of ambition (probably due to budget limitations) that doesn’t allow the deliriousness of William’s journey to truly set in. I do think that Forbes has the vision to craft something truly demented; he just needs the financial backing to visualize it.
Coming to the performances, as mentioned before, if you don’t know the character that Alex Winter is playing, you probably won’t recognize him until you see his name in the credits. It is a truly transformative and physically demanding act, and Winter knocks it out of the park. Jonah Ray Rodrigues is really good, and he does swing for the fences, but it gets repetitive after a while, and the onus solely lies on the writing. With a better script and a nuanced character arc, I think Jonah Ray’s performance would’ve been memorable. Christian Calloway is pretty funny as the undead homeless guy who didn’t get to have croissants. Randee Heller embodies every cheap landlord in existence, and I think Eleanor’s character becomes more hilarious when she is puppeteerd by Bill Watterson and Gabe Bartalos. Kiran Deol’s Emily, DeMorge Brown’s Phillip, Thomas Lennon’s Scott, and Ryan Kattner’s Caleb are too one note to make an impact. It’s not their fault, though, because that’s how they are written. I am sure a better script would’ve allowed them to shine. Jon Daly and Kumail Nanjiani’s cameos are quite entertaining. Also, Kosher the Pig deserves a shout-out for their cute screen presence.
Destroy All Neighbors could’ve been one of the most relatable movies of the year since the concept of a quiet, private life in an apartment is becoming a distant reality, and, on top of that, we are becoming increasingly insensitive about our surroundings. But the film’s half-baked script keeps its themes and characters from being something significant in the horror comedy genre. The gore and the wacky antics—especially the scene where Vlad’s intestines are used to turn up the volume of the music system—are enjoyable. However, even that loses its edge when the protagonist’s whole shtick reaches a level of monotony. With all that said, I will still recommend giving Destroy All Neighbors a try, especially if you are a fan of low-budget, dirty-looking horror flicks. And if you are really in the mood, pair it up with The Voices and experience a double feature where a guy becomes a serial killer because he cannot distinguish between reality and fiction.