Hobo with a Shotgun
Film review by: Witney Seibold
I like this story: When Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez made “Grindhouse” back in 2007, they peppered their faux-vintage exploitation double feature with several “fake” trailers for non-existent films. As part of the film’s promotion, they also held a contest for amateur filmmakers to create their own fake trailer. The winner would have their trailer attached to the final print of “Grindhouse.” Jason Eisener, an ambitious film student in Canada made a fake preview called “Hobo with a Shotgun,” and, if you were one of the lucky few to have seen the initial theatrical run of “Grindhouse” in Canada, you would have seen the fruits of his labor. Now, thanks partly to the success of Ethan Maniquis‘ and Rodriguez’ “Machete” (another of the fake trailers), Eisener has had the chance to expand his trailer into a full-length feature film. It sounds to me like this kid is living the dream.
It’s also curious that both “Hobo with a Shotgun” and “Machete” were made in the wake of “Grindhouse’s” widespread financial disappointment. I suppose it stands as a testimony to the film’s cultural impact, despite its low ticket sales. “Grindhouse,” with its gleefully orchestrated 1970s exploitation chintziness on its sleeve, may be one for the history books. But onto “Hobo with a Shotgun.”
“Hobo with a Shotgun” is filmed in ultra-saturated colors. It’s music alternates between wild rock, and calming John Carpenter synth. It takes place in a not-too-distant-future where large cities are rampant with public executions committed by wildly powerful criminal bosses. There are many, many deaths, most of which are incredibly creative. When people bleed, they spray gallons of bright, syrupy blood. When heads are smashed, they explode like overripe papayas. Right from the opening credits, it’s clear that we’re a far way away from the hard-edged world of “Grindhouse’s” 1970s exploitation, and deep into early 1980s Tromaville; it’s possessed of an unbelievable manic mayhem that is usually only seen in the New Jersey-based, straight-to-video b-movie house.
And the mayhem, oh the mayhem. Just to run it down, here’s a tally: A man has his head severed by barbed wire. A bikini-clad woman bathes in his spraying neck blood. A man has his foot smashed in a video arcade. Another man has his head smashed between two bumper cars. Several dozen people have their heads splattered by a shotgun. A busload of children is set on fire. A man has his arm broken around a video game joystick. Someone hides inside the splattered entrails of a dead man. A woman has her neck sawed. A woman has her arm fed into a lawnmower. She then uses her expose arm bones to stab a guy. There are a pair of armored thugs (or perhaps they’re robots) wielding noose guns; they fire a noose around your neck, then fire the other end of the rope into the ceiling, effectively lynching you in an instant. The robots are nicknamed The Plague. There’s immolation, several savage beatings, pederasty, and no end to the manic screaming.
If what I just described sounds fun to you, by all means, attend this film. This is not a cutesy film that merely pays lip service to its gory predecessors. This film really goes all the way. That it seems to take place in 1984, amongst the homeless, only adds to the gloriously over-the-top Reaganomic tone of the film; Eisener is clearly a fan of John Carpenter’s 1988 invasion film “They Live,” still one of the best genre films of (and indictment of) the 1980s.
The story follows the titular unnamed hobo, played brilliantly by Rutger Hauer, as he wanders into this Reagan-era world-gone-mad. Hauer is a grizzled and experienced actor, best known for his genre work like “Blade Runner” and “The Hitcher.” It’s curious, then, that Hauer seems to be the one element of “Hobo with a Shotgun” that lends class to the proceedings. He’s not just slumming it; he really sells the role of a lonely and slightly-bonkers homeless man, tragically trying to survive in the streets.
It’s not long before the hobo begins witnessing the horror of this city he has arrived in. Evidently, the city is held in an iro0n grip by a cackling crime boss named Drake (Rob Wells), and his two letterman jacket-wearing, Tom Cruise lookalike sons Ivan and Slick (Brian Downey and Gregory Smith). Their preferred method of execution is latching a manhole cover around people’s necks, putting them down a manhole, so that their heads are just at street level, looping a length of barbed wire around their necks, and yanking the wire with a car, effectively decapitating them. I guess gunning them down is too boring. Ivan and Slick spend their nights in a garish video arcade, where they take drugs, rape hookers, and murder whoever pisses them off in creative ways. These are crime enforcers who take a lot of pride in their work.
The hobo just wants to save up enough money to buy a lawnmower, as to start his own business. He’s an old guard, heardworkin’ type who recalls tragically his past life. He is disgusted by the level of horror around him. As his is homeless, most people tend to ignore him. He befriends a put-upon prostitute named Abby (Molly Dunsworth), and they seem to be the only people in this town who aren’t criminals are victims. It’s not long before the constant level of street violence outrages our hero to the point of purchasing a shotgun (with a seemingly unlimited supply of shells), and doling out the harshness, vigilante style. Despite the control the bad guys have over the city, our hobo manages to work his way through most of the underworld, motivated by outrage and a twisted sense of justice.
While the mayhem is over-the-top and gleeful and even a little goofy, and should slake the thirst of any half-drunk, college-age gorehound,“Hobo with a Shotgun” also vacillates oddly into occasional stretches of extreme melancholy. When we see our hobo give quiet monologues (notably to a nursery full of newborn babies), they feel unbearably sad. And then, just when things ought to be ratcheting up into delirious kick-ass territory, the film takes a downward turn, and ends on a note of depressing tragedy. I suppose this was the director’s attempt to give his film some gravitas after all the glorified violence, but it feels misplaced.
“Hobo with a Shotgun” is currently available on pay-per-view cable TV systems, but will be released in theaters come mid May. This is the kind of film that needs to be seen in a group, preferably in a public place. The kind of film that celebrates the communal experience. Despite its goofiness and lack of 1970s edge, it still contains the spirit of the grindhouse.