Film #74: Hobo With a Shotgun (2011)

film 74 hobo with a shotgun

Rating: 4/5

“You can’t solve all the world’s problems with a shotgun.”

Easily one of the most evocative film titles of our collection, Hobo With a Shotgun came into being after winning Robert Rodriguez’ South by Southwest Grindhouse trailer competition. It’s the second of the fake trailers, sandwiched between Rodriguez’ Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, to become a bona fide, full length movie – arguably Machete has been the bigger success story, with a sequel only recently out of cinemas and a third film on the way (somewhat indicative of the fact that it’s hard enough to make one movie out of a two minute trailer, let alone three, it’s called Machete Kills Again… In Space!). Yet Hobo With a Shotgun is by far the more authentic of the two – would a genuine grindhouse film really get such a publicity drive? Would it really star actors like Robert De Niro and Mel Gibson? Of course not. Jason Eisener’s film feels utterly rooted in the 70s, more than homage, more than imitation – Hobo With a Shotgun is entirely its own movie, and it’s bloody great.

While the original trailer featured David Brunt as the Hobo of the title, Rutger Hauer takes over for the film itself, arriving in the ironically named Hope Town in much the same way as a real hobo would – by train. (On a side note, blues musician Seasick Steve has handily provided a distinction between hobos, tramps, and bums – “Hobos are people who move around looking for work, tramps are people who move around but don’t look for work, and bums are people who don’t move and don’t work.”) All this unnamed hobo wants is a quiet life and a lawnmower, so he can set up his own business, but Hope Town is a bad place: the streets are dirty and filled with vagrants; the police are corrupt; murder is a sport, and the people are too afraid, or too ambivalent, to do anything about it. At the helm is criminal kingpin Drake (Brian Downey) and his thug-jock sons, Slick and Ivan. Befriending a (possibly underage) prostitute called Abby (Molly Dunsworth), our homeless hero realises that he has to take the law into his own hands, to rid the town of the scum and restore some sense of social decency.

Hauer is perfect as the Hobo – silent, stoic, with a well-worn face and a permanently weary expression. He doesn’t talk often, but when he does, his thoughts form into intelligent, sometimes lengthy, speeches that reveal his intelligence and heart. The scumbags he’s faced with come in all forms, and are true grindhouse classics – the paedophile Santa Claus may only get a few brief scenes but is always mentioned in other reviews, and deservedly so (we first see him driving off with a screaming child in the back seat). Slick and Ivan are slimeball morons, glorifying death and revelling in sadism, while kingpin Drake is equally as deluded about his own sense of grandeur and omnipotence. The trio are first seen killing their uncle in full view of a whole community, through a rather ingenious technique involving a manhole cover, a noose of barbed wire, and a car’s tow bar. It sets the tone of the gore, which is unashamedly over-the-top and completely gratuitous. Interestingly, the nudity that traditionally goes hand in hand with the gore is understated and rare, limited to one scene in which topless girls play piñata with a hapless victim.

Make no mistake, however: Hobo With a Shotgun may be ridiculous, excessive, stupidly gory, but it’s by no means a bad movie. It so perfectly captures the essence of classic grindhouse and exploitation films, from its music (never mind Disco Inferno playing as a school bus full of kids get incinerated, the opening credits’ accompanying score instantly sets the scene) to its visuals. Aesthetically, this is a thing of beauty – shot in glorious Technicolor, every scene is bathed in lurid, neon colours (this is the grindhouse equivalent of a Nicholas Winding Refn movie) and unnatural, discomforting hues. The gore itself is equally retro – and, at times, far less in-your-face than you might expect. Just like the old 70s movies, Eisener allows his audience’s imaginations to create some of the particularly grisly scenes for themselves – the Hobo getting the word SCUM etched onto his chest, for example, is a great combination of quick cuts between Hauer’s pained expression and some extreme close-ups of what is clearly a prosthetic. It’s perfectly in keeping with the exploitation films of the 70s, albeit with the swearing ramped up for 21st century audiences.

It may be a perfect addition to the grindhouse genre, but there are some issues. Reflecting, perhaps, the problems of having to flesh out the trailer to feature length, the final showdown veers wildly into a strange, vaguely supernatural realm, with motorcycle-riding armoured “demons” on the rampage (there’s also a very intriguing blink-and-you’ll-miss-it inclusion of what appears to be a giant octopus?!). This is, however, one lapse in judgement on Eisener’s part and, although it’s perhaps a shame that he didn’t have enough confidence in Drake as a truly villainous nemesis, it does lead to a rather epic battle, with a typically bittersweet conclusion.

I’ll finish this review with an anecdote. I first watched Hobo With a Shotgun at FrightFest’s mini horror festival in Glasgow. It was the last (and most eagerly anticipated) film of the day, and the audience, many of whom had spent the whole day in the auditorium, leaving only for bathroom and cigarette breaks, nevertheless bayed, whooped and cheered as Eisener appeared to introduce his movie (and, later, they were equally vocal in their appreciation for every moment of excessive, ridiculous gore). The director stayed to watch, having removed his trousers for comfort and inviting the paying punters to do the same (I’m not sure whether any actually did). Watching this blackly comic, modern grindhouse classic was a truly great experience; at home some of that screening’s magic is understandably lost, but the film remains just as fun. For gore fans, this is an essential addition to the genre.

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