REVIEW: Hobo with a Shotgun is Bloody Fun For Grindhouse Nerds, By Grindhouse Nerds
To love grindhouse cinema is to forgive the limitations of low budgets, bad actors, and cheesy premises milked for their lowest common denominator thrills; to intentionally make grindhouse cinema is to welcome the laser scrutiny of the film geekerati, a much greater artistic gamble. Miss the mark with that audience and you get a box-office nightmare -- just ask Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. But hit the B-movie sweet spot just right, as Jason Eisener mostly does in his gleefully gory Hobo with a Shotgun, and you could find yourself living the dream.
Of course, for a young director like Eisener, making Hobo with a Shotgun was likely fantasy-fulfilling enough in itself. Just imagine: You're a filmmaker in your early 20s. You win a fake-trailer contest hosted by Tarantino and Rodriguez with a short film about a deranged homeless man who cleans up a corrupt town armed only with a shotgun and his own mental instability. Then (this is the good part) you get to turn said trailer into a full-length feature, Rutger Freakin' Hauer signs on to play your titular Hobo, and you're allowed to load every genre influence that's ever pushed your geek buttons into the blender. Squibs of the red stuff at every turn! Badass one-liners for every gruesome vigilante murder! A score that can't decide which musical deity it loves more, the '70s goth-electro stylings of Goblin or '80s-era John Carpenter!
Eisener kicks off the mayhem early on after introducing his drifter hero (Hauer) in an evocative throwback opening credit sequence -- peacefully riding the rails, satchel in hand, possessed of a face weathered and wearied by life. Wandering off the train tracks into the next stop on his Vagrant Tour of America, Hobo finds himself in a hellish urban nightmare known colloquially as "Fuck Town," where a prancing, white-suited sadist named The Drake (Brian Downey) keeps the citizenry terrorized with drugs, brutal violence, racketeering, intimidation, and public execution by barbed wire noose. Yes, there will be (gallons and bucketfuls and geysers of) blood. And at least one woman in a bikini writhing in pleasure in the crimson spurts, just for kicks.
The Drake has two equally sadistic progeny, cut from the cloth of the smarmy douchebag villains of the '80s: Ivan (Nick Bateman), a strapping, evil, and stupid cross between Brandon Routh and Tom Cruise in Risky Business, and Slick (Gregory Smith from yes, The WB's Everwood), the favorite son with a penchant for rape and torture. Hobo first crosses the duo while rescuing a comely hooker with a heart of gold, Abby (Molly Dunsworth), fending off Slick with the crazed, wild-eyed warning: "Put the knife away, kid, or I'll use it to cut welfare checks from your goddamn body!"
Lines like that, of course, are why we go to movies with titles like Hobo with a Shotgun to begin with. And believe me, there are plenty more quotables peppered throughout Hauer's rampages. (Other favorites: "I'm gonna sleep in your bloody carcasses tonight!" and "Mother Teresa is a goddamn saint!") But where Eisener first tests his audience's threshold is in his major tonal shifts to saccharine moments between Hobo and Abby. The two bond when Hobo is beaten and mutilated for defending Abby's honor; she takes him in, he tells her a crazy homeless person story about bears that's really a metaphorical foreshadowing of the movie itself, and it's all scored with a wink, plinking music swelling with soap-operatic emotion as the two plot to escape Fuck Town to open a lawncare business and live happily ever after. Actors Hauer and Dunsworth play these scenes well and straight-faced -- the only way to possibly pull off material this cheesy. It's a fine line between knowing, satirical melodrama and, well, terribleness, but the duo push through with straight faces and manage to give Hobo a sweet, wistful heart.
Hauer, 67, is the reason why Hobo with a Shotgun works. The Dutch actor, a cult icon in the genre world for his '80s oeuvre (1982's Blade Runner, 1985's Ladyhawke, 1986's The Hitcher, and 1989's Blind Fury primarily), is an art house thesp trapped in a lowbrow action hero's career. (Most folks will never even hear of The Mill & The Cross, Lech Majewski's experimental living tableau based on a Renaissance painting in which he stars, which played Sundance last January days after Hobo. But everyone remembers the vampire Lothos from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, amirite?) He clearly knows what kind of movie he's in, and -- maybe in response to his cartoonish castmates, whose characters were designed to ham it up and devour scenery at every chance -- seems to take it upon himself to balance the over-the-top mania by imbuing his character with rare nuance and pathos. It may sound silly, but watch Hauer go from shuffling, hesitant outsider on the fringe to vigilante hero raining down justice in the streets with his 12-gauge and you see one of the year's best, most heartbreaking and unhinged performances thus far.
But also credit Eisener and screenwriter John Davies, longtime friends from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, with pulling off the neat trick of getting the audience to root for a homeless hero. There's more than a little social commentary at play here, delivered with tongue firmly in cheek (Abby, rallying an angry mob of citizens: "Just because they don't got beds doesn't mean they're homeless. 'Cause guess what? They've got the biggest home of any of us. It's called The Streets!").
Our hero's great struggle is choosing between his dream of suburban normalcy and his desire to correct society's ills, depicted nearly wordlessly in a scene in which he literally picks up a shotgun over a coveted lawnmower to stop a pawn shop robbery (then makes sure to pay the shop owner his $49.99). Watching a man, long ignored, violated, and disrespected by the world, give up everything to save it -- even in a ridiculous action pic filled with twisted violence and overblown everything -- is actually kind of soul-stirring. Plus, it gives way to hilarious bits, like a newspaper headline that reads "HOBO STOPS BEGGING, DEMANDS CHANGE."
But by the exponentially insane third act, Eisener begins to lose his grip on the madness. More crazy ideas get thrown into the mix, as if he and his VHS-obsessed buddies riffed for hours on genre references and he put it all onscreen. After setting up the socially-conscious (and, OK, probably deranged) Hobo in a heightened dystopia where you can feel every crunch of broken glass being chewed -- a place filled with pedophile Santas, rapist cops, and drug-addicted teens, straight out of our local news nightmares -- supernatural Terminator-like iron giant assassins called The Plague enter the picture out of nowhere, stringing innocents up in chains and mechanical torture devices, and that's just about the final straw. Like Hobo himself, you may long for simpler times.