I think I’ve taken all I can from the Grindhouse series, which started as a one-off experiment in 2007 (a commercially failed one at that) and has since spun off a full-fledged franchise with three theatrical releases under its belt and at least two more to come. Its gruesome entries, of which Hobo with a Shotgun is the latest, claim to pay loving tribute to the best of nineteen-seventies exploitation cinema but so far have only parodied its worst excesses. Can someone please explain to me why I should praise entertainment art that aims neither to entertain nor to challenge me artistically?
I argued in my review of Drive Angry (2011) that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez lack the trashiness to pull off this concept, that their inherent cleverness got in the way of Death Proof (2007), Planet Terror (2007), and Machete (2010). I take it back. Hobo with a Shotgun wasn’t directed by creative geniuses with twenty years behind the camera. Rather, it was helmed by Jason Eisener, a Canadian upstart whose mock commercial earned a spot on the Grindhouse trailer reel as part of a contest and who now gets to extend his short into a full motion picture.
At first, I thought Eisener’s relative inexperience would give him the edge. After all, Hobo with a Shotgun starts on a near perfect note, which is to say a musical montage of the titular hobo riding a cargo train, the wrinkles on his grizzled face heightened by sparse makeup and natural sunlight. The melancholic score and low-key shots of grassy fields capture what Rodriguez, in particular, could not: the slow build of seventies exploitation, an unintended consequence of novice filmmakers having to pad the runtime with a limited budget. I’m grateful for the extended close-ups of veteran actor Rutger Hauer, whose worn features, much like Danny Trejo’s, communicate more about a character than a thousand expository flashbacks.
It should be noted that Hauer gives a phenomenal performance, emulating not just the gruff mannerisms of certain homeless folk but also their disjointed speech and reluctance to look others in the eyes. We get the sense of a confused soul who might have brought joy to the world if it hadn’t turned its back on him. The streets of Hope Town prove mean to say the least. Here is a municipality so corrupt vagrants are hunted down with torches and pitchforks while the local mob boss (Brian Downey) and his psychotic sons (Gregory Smith and Nick Bateman) hold nightly death parties involving torture, decapitation, evisceration, and skinned human piñatas. Can we blame our hero for wanting to clean up his turf with a twelve-gauge firearm? Not with those intense peepers of his, we can’t.
If this review strikes you as oddly complimentary in light of its grumpy introduction, keep in mind that, at this point in the story, I still rather enjoyed Hobo with a Shotgun. Sure, everything’s shot in front of flat surfaces; the special effects are laughable; and a coked-up Adam West could teach the villains a thing or two about subtlety. However, Eisener uses these hammy elements to enhance the narrative somehow, striking a delicate balance between the tongue-in-cheek gravitas of our hero’s plight and the prerequisite bursts of ultra violence.
Then, in keeping with the Grindhouse series, the director decides to up the stakes and drop this fragile equilibrium down the garburator, drowning it in a thousand ground-up pieces of raw flesh. The second half of Hobo with a Shotgun proves so relentless in its lurid excesses that it’ll make you want to either throw up or repeatedly hit yourself with the nearest sharp object just to stop the boredom. Yes, yes, those are unspeakable uses for ice skates and bumper cars; I find obliterated penises pretty gross too; no, I don’t know where the hell bots and tentacle monster come from; and, oh, God, I don’t care.
To be clear, I don’t blame the cast or crew for this steady decline. Rather, I point the finger at the Grindhouse mandate, which misses the point that most of us enjoy B-movies despite their flaws, not because of them. Past the lame splatter shots and wooden line readings of seventies exploitation flicks lies a creative thirst I find lacking in Hobo with a Shotgun. Why? Because the people involved geared all their efforts in making the experience stupid and unpleasant. That’s fine for Tarantino and Rodriguez, proven artists who specialise in hipster irony, but don’t up-and-coming filmmakers like Jason Eisener and screenwriter John Davies deserve a chance to, you know, show us something good?