"When life gives you razor blades, you make a baseball bat... with razor blades!"
In 2007, Quentin Tarantino & Robert Rodriguez unleashed a bold, experimental vanity project on the world with Grindhouse, an homage to the low-budget, violent exploitation films they grew up watching. It could have been a great film, but with two directors notorious for refusing to cut anything from their films, the film became a bloated mess with a handful of good moments (mainly the fake trailers) and a whole lot of nonsense. Three years later, Rodriguez turned one of his fake trailers, Machete, into a feature length film that was a complete and utter nonsensical waste of time. The film wanted to have it both ways, it wanted to be a fun, violent throwback to the old grindhouse pics, but also it tried to be a deadly serious screed, not-so-hidden agenda about immigration. The film is pure garbage as a result, leaving me with little hope for anything Rodriguez does in the future (which I'm told includes turning Machete into a trilogy. Sigh.)
When Grindhouse was released, there was a contest for amateur filmmakers to create their own fake grindhouse trailers, and the winner would be shown as part of special screenings of the film. The winner was a Candian kid by the name of Jason Eisener who created a trailer for a film called Hobo with a Shotgun. Like the much more expensive trailers produced by big name filmmakers for Grindhouse, Eisener's film was a masterpiece in miniature, but would it actually be able to sustain for a full ninety minutes? When Eisener signed a deal to turn his trailer into a feature, we got the answer to that question, which is a resounding yes.
What makes Hobo with a Shotgun succeed where Rodriguez failed miserably, is that the film has a genuine air of danger and borderline carelessness to it. It's a true low-budget affair with big aspirations instead of a big-budget film with low aspirations. Films like this can only be made on the cheap, and any attempt to do otherwise is immediately fighting an uphill battle. The biggest and best asset the film has going for it is Rutger Hauer as the title character. Hauer is an actor who can play go-for-broke without a shred of vanity, and his presence elevates the film immediately.
Hauer's hobo arrives by boxcar in Hope Town (which has been changed on the sign to Scum Town) and finds himself in the middle of a town run by a ruthless gangster named The Drake (Brian Downey) and his two sons Slick (Gregory Smith) & Ivan (Nick Bateman). The hobo gazes longingly at a $50 lawn mower in the pawn shop window, dreaming of starting his own lawn care business. Not the type to roll over and let a bunch of punks push him around, the hobo fights back when Slick tries to rape a prostitute named Abby (Molly Dunsworth). When the hobo brings Slick to the police station, he finds out that everyone in town is on The Drake's payroll, and they cut the hobo up and leave him for dead. Abby takes him in, grateful for his help earlier, and the two lonely outsiders find comfort in one another's dreams of bigger and better things.
The hobo is finally able to scrounge up the fifty bucks to get his dream underway, but when he goes to the pawn shop to buy the mower, some punks in ski masks show up to rob and terrorize the people in the shop. The hobo takes a quick glance at the wall, seeing a shotgun with a price tag of fifty bucks. Seeing his true destiny taking shape, the hobo grabs the shotgun, and begins a spree of vigilantism that sends the people in power reeling and gives the outcasts of society hope that things can change.
There has been a common misconception about this film that it was made by inept filmmakers, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Eisener is an incredibly skilled filmmaker, and as I mentioned in my review of House of the Devil, it takes talent to make a film so seamlessly steeped in the tropes of the films it's paying homage to, that it feels like it could have been made at the height of that genre's heyday. This is one such film. It could very easily have been made in the mid to late 70s, as it uses makeup and effects techniques that have been around since then, and it doesn't rely on a bunch of bullshit cgi and after-effects to make the film look like it didn't cost anything to make.
The script is phenomenal, full of gloriously ridiculous quotes and monologues that very blithely walk a tightrope between dumb and knowingly dumb. It takes a ton of talent to make a film this good, and the people who don't appreciate this film, don't understand what these filmmakers were going for. It's a delirious excessive blood orgy, but it's fun, never trying to make anyone take it seriously for a second, and the scenes where it does attempt to be serious end up being more ridiculous as a result. The serious moments should be the dumbest, and this film nails that. Rutger Hauer gives the performance of his career, committing so wholly to the film and the character, that he makes you genuinely afraid that he may have lost his mind in real life. It's a great performance from a great and underrated and underused actor, and hopefully it will encourage other directors to use him more.
Hobo with a Shotgun is not a movie for everyone, but if you love films like Black Dynamite, and were similarly disappointed with Grindhouse and Machete, then this is the film for you. I can't recommend it highly enough!