Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Hobo With a Shotgun

Hobo With a Shotgun (2011)
Dir. Jason Eisener
Starring Rutger Hauer and who the hell else do you need besides Rutger Hauer? Also Molly Dunsworth, Brian Downey, and Gregory Smith.



So I saw a bunch of fine movies recently, from the likes of Errol Morris, Warner Herzog, and Kim Ji-Woon. We'll get to those in a bit. But for some reason, the film I really want to talk about right now and can't stop telling people about is a sleazy, low-rent Canadian Z-grade exploitation feature called HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN. I saw it on Saturday and frankly have already put more thought into it than I've ever expended on a Terrence Malick film (no offense, Terrence. There's room in my heart for both you and a dirty, disheveled Rutger Hauer frantically blowing people away with a shotgun).

So you probably know the origins of this thing if you've made it this far into the review, but let's have a quick overview for the folks just joining us. HOBO is yet another inexplicable spin-off of the commercially unsuccessful and mildly amusing Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino exploitation homage GRINDHOUSE, which featured period-accurate fake trailers of ridiculous grindhouse films which for some reason keep getting made into real films which are actually better than the original real film which sported the fake trailers. In the case of HOBO, director Jason Eisener was the winner of a make-your-own-grindhouse-trailer contest, creating easily the most authentic-looking and focused of the many trailers (to my eye, only Edgar Wright's DON'T trailer, produced with his usual fastidious eye for detail, even approaches the legitimacy of the HOBO trailer). Well, they had to know after GRINDHOUSE, PLANET TERROR, DEATH-PROOF, and MACHETE that there was not really any money to be made with this concept, but for some reason somebody in Canada gave the kid some cash and HOBO made the jump from meta-joke to actual film.

And you know what? This Eisener kid runs fucking circles around Tarantino, Rodriguez, Eli Roth, and Rob Zombie. He made a better movie out of the concept than all of them, and, crucially, he did it honestly. Now, I enjoyed the GRINDHOUSE twins (the movies, not the babysitter twins) and MACHETE quite a bit. They're fun films packed with their respective directors' usual strengths (and weaknesses). PLANET TERROR has some respectably outrageous concepts, DEATH PROOF has some classic Tarantino dialogue and great stunts, MACHETE has Machete himself, which turns out to be worth more on its own than the three movies worth of plot they stuffed around him. And Jeff Fahey also.



But as much as they got the details right on the trailers and intertitles and whatnot, none of those are real sub-B-grade exploitation cinema. They're big expensive movies made by successful Hollywood directors who grew up on that cinema and think it's cute to go on talk shows and gratuitously throw around the word "grindhouse." Digitally scratching up the "film" to make it look old doesn't automatically make your multi-million dollar big studio-funded massively advertised genre joke a grindhouse film. All those films are consummately professional, big-budget (comparatively), tongue-in-cheek homages to exploitation films, not the real deal. No one at all familiar with that category of films would confuse the two; they're too self-conscious about how clever they are at recreating the minutiae of a now pretty-much dead type of movie.*

HOBO is having none of that ironic meta shit. It is not a homage. It is not a satire. It genuinely is the most imaginatively twisted ill-tempered perverse borderline psychopathic film of 1985. It absolutely never feels like its trying to mimic a sleazy 80s exploitation feature -- it just IS one. You could show this film next to Albert Pyun's RADIOACTIVE DREAMS and you'd be completely unable to tell which was genuinely made in a cocaine-fueled haze in 1985. If anything, DREAMS might look more like the cheeky parody of 80s schlock clich├ęs (it wasn't). HOBO has everything you'd want out of a cheap Reagan-era exploitation thriller: apocalyptic fears of a collapsing society, roving gangs of randomly violent outrageously garbed street punks, shameless mega-acting** bolstered by equally extreme photography, intense abstract color schemes, sleazy sexual violence, nauseating 80s new wave pop, and lots and lots of bloody squibs. All these things are exaggerated to the point of distortion, but the key is that they're never exaggerated for the sake of parody. They're outrageous because this is a genuinely outrageous movie, not because some punk kid wanted to poke fun at a kind of movie which hasn't been made for 20+ years that were made under punishing practical constraints and yet still managed to be more original and memorable than most of the crap that they try to pass off as exploitation today and now stuff is more expensive and teenagers swear all the time and you kids get off my lawn.

Anyway, I’ll admit I was a little scared going into this one. The trailer looked sleazy and depraved in an awesome way, but some of the feedback I started to hear had me worried that this was actually going to be too much for me. Specifically, I was horrified by this comment by “Charles” on http://www.outlawvern.com/:

I would agree that both HOBO and WANTED are both cruel films, but as mean spirited and cruel as WANTED is it is no where near as cruel or sadistic as HOBO.

Well, WANTED was a film which, despite being one of the sharpest and best-made action films in a long time, was actually so morally bankrupt that it lost me and stopped being fun. Its not that it was too violent or sadistic; it’s that it was so fetishistically committed to its worship of killing, and so openly contemptuous of anything resembling human decency. Its idea of morals is to never disobey the magic loom that tells you to kill people. I’m not claiming to be the world’s greatest humanitarian, but to me there’s a huge difference in using ultra-violence to help people you care about and using ultra-violence to further the agenda of a magic loom. One is way easier for me to get behind. And fortunately HOBO understands that.

In fact, that’s what makes it work. It’s a work stunning depravity, bound and determined to push some buttons most movies won’t dare touch – but that’s what being exploitation cinema is all about. Its saving grace is that – just like its protagonist-- underneath the layers of filth and crazy there’s a center of basic human kindness. Our nameless Hobo comes to town not to get vengeance against anyone who wronged him, but to buy a lawnmower and start his own business. He’s trying to start his life again in the humblest possible way, and willing to do some degrading things just for the chance. WANTED would have found him pathetic, but I’ll be damned if the makers of this film aren’t genuinely sad that it doesn’t work out for him (SPOILER: He buys a shotgun instead. But the lawnmower ingeniously returns later in the film!). The central tension in the film is not if he will kill his enemies, but if he’ll be able to get out of the vigilante game alive and maybe get a chance at redemption. WANTED and HOBO trade in the same love of imaginatively violent film, but to me their different perspectives on what’s valuable makes all the difference.

I think this about sums it up.

Anger and aggression are worthwhile things to reflect upon, and even to create violent fantasies about --but to me, they’re worthwhile only to the extent to which the focus of the anger and aggression is worthwhile. Our Hobo is angry because he sees a young woman stuck in an unbearably awful situation which she can’t escape without his help. Weirdly enough in a film called HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN, I think this basic kindness is the thing that the filmmakers like most about the character. There’s a certain enjoyment to watching him blow away the appallingly deranged antagonists of the film, but if you watch closely after his initial rampage, he’s almost always on the defensive. The few times he’s not, he doesn’t look cool and sexy – he looks dirty and crazy, and the characters react to him with horror. He feels like he’s been given no choice but to resort to violence, and maybe he’s right – but the movie’s subtext is about wasted potential, and there’s a genuine regret that its come to shotgun violence instead of yard maintenance.

There’s even a fairly coherent religious allegory at the end, about a god that would create a world ugly enough that someone has to be sacrificed to put an end to it. It’s about as overt as you would want out of something like this, and yet, oddly, the more I think about it the more appropriate --and even thoughtful!-- it seems.

Casting Rugter Hauer in any movie is always a stroke of genius, and the filmmakers are wise enough to let him carry the film. He’s just as good as you might imagine, making his nameless character a complex mix of biblical wrath, awkward sweetness, and pitiable helplessness. There’s no backstory save for some very slight implications that he may have suffered a painful personal loss somewhere a long time ago that led him to this sorry state, but Hauer somehow ties his extreme traits together to make the character feel complete and tragic, while still reminding us that he’s a complete trainwreck and probably a little mentally ill. He’s pathetic, in a way, (listen to him awkwardly fail to make a metaphor about bears as he desperately tries to say something meaningful to someone he wants to help) but there’s a fierce dignity to Hauer’s steely blue eyes which ensure that he’s never a joke. Nobody else in the movie is anywhere near as good as Hauer is, but everyone seems gamely committed to the exaggerated reality of the film. The antagonists are colorful, myriad, and suitably despicable, and even the leading lady (while not the greatest actress in the world) gives it her all.

And really, that’s what makes this a special one. When you hear a title as brilliantly zen as ZOMBIE STRIPPERS or SNAKES ON A PLANE, you better start lowering your expectations because you know the filmmakers are just gonna coast on that title and not worry about making the great film that ZOMBIE STRIPPERS, by all rights, ought to be. Or worse still, they may confuse an elegantly simple exploitation concept with lowbrow entertainment, and are going to make some winking self-conscious bullshit falling all over itself to remind you that it’s in on the joke. Here, blessedly, there is no joke. The people making this thing cared about it enough to want to make it good. They cared enough to put some artistry into the camera framing, into the sets, into the costumes. They cared enough to write a script which has enough confidence in the concept not to overload it with a bunch of unnecessary crap but which is also unafraid to delve a little into what it represents and what it might symbolize in this old crazy world which has plenty of sick, sad, depraved things in it, but is sadly lacking in hobos with shotguns. 


Which reminds me, they really need to make that ENTER THE VOID sequel about post-apocalyptic supernatural motorcycle killers.



When exploitation films were really being produced in earnest, they catered to a market which wanted to see something it couldn't get in the mainstream media -- be it explicit sex, shocking violence, or just bizarre concepts which normal people would never take seriously. With the arrival of the internet, there's not much room left for that anymore, but HOBO reminds us that the ones worth remembering were products of more than cheap shocks. They were labors of twisted imagination and often herculean efforts under terrible conditions, borne out of a desire to create something truly memorable, if not exactly enlightening. Jason Eisner and his crew are a genuine testament to that spirit, and their film is a reflection of that continued tradition of dreaming weird.

*BLACK DYNAMITE --despite being a more direct satire-- is closer to the real deal. It looks cheap because it WAS cheap. It's much more committed to the look, feel, motifs, music, and even structure of 70s Blaxploitation than any GRINDHOUSE spin-off was. But still, although it recreates the details a little more honestly and consistently than the GRINDHOUSE boys, its obviously a parody and no one who watched it all the way through would be fooled.

**Mega-Acting is a trademark of Vern at http://www.outlawvern.com/

5 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this one too, and I think I agree with most of your points, but I also am not sure I agree that it completely avoids the irony and genre fetishization of the other GRINDHOUSE related projects. There was a little too much deliberately tacky set & costume design (especially the bad guys' track suits and choice of automobile), too many "so bad they're good" one liners, too many "hey we're trying to make this look kinda like the 80's" signifiers. Not enough of that silly crap to sink the film, I don't think, but it's still there.

    Would definitely pay to see a spin off movie about The Plague, though.

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  2. Dan -- eh, maybe you're right. Funny thing about the 80s films is they were so outrageous even at the time that they already bordered on parody. It definitely was a deliberate attempt to evoke the 80s milieu, but to me the joke is about the outrageousness of the characters, not a parody of the time period. Yeah, the Drake brothers wear tracksuits, but they also kill people with ice skates. They're just pervesely over-the-top characters all around, including (but not limited to) their period-appropriate style. I maintain that you could show this alongside with a bunch of trashy 80s exploitation films and not pick it out as the modern one. Likewise, there are plenty of groaner one-liners, but to me they feel legitimately part of a movie like this, not an ironic attempt to evoke a style.

    Obviously, the movie has a very deliberate throwback style, but I guess I just can't imagine the thing working as a modern film. It just feels like it completely belongs in that setting and style. Interestingly, the original trailer has a very different look to it -- more 70s grindhouse than 80s schlock. To me, it seems like they had this concept and it just felt more right to put it in the Reagan years, with all the moral panic and absurd coke-fueled stylization that entails.

    So while the GRINDHOUSE films seemed like they were created to mimic an old style, this one feels like a concept which REQUIRED that style in order to work properly. It's a subtle difference, but it makes this one seem way more legit to me. And also the fact that it was made on a suitably micro budget by committed amateurs.

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  3. Wonderful review, Mr. S. Although I do think you should give Molly Dunsworth a shout out in your cast list. :)

    You're right, I was sad that he didn't get his lawnmower.

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  4. This is my favorite of your reviews so far! Well played sir :)

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