This is the first of a few reviews of films from the Film Comment Selects program at Lincoln Center.
Based on a fake trailer shot for "Grindhouse," Jason Eisener's "Hobo With A Shotgun" is less of a movie and more of a sensibility run amok. It's blood, violence and ugliness writ large, and it's genuinely delirious in its intentions to ferry a flaming viking ship of bad intentions straight to hell. Of course, to pay money for "Hobo With A Shotgun" is to endorse a naked sense of lawlessness already, avoiding it provides the exact opposite moral. But to love cinema, you have to love cinema of the diseased, and Eisener's directorial debut is borderline rabid.
Rutger Hauer plays a wandering vagrant of indeterminate origin who makes his way to a small Canadian town. He is not the man of action Hauer played in the eccentric cult favorite "Blind Fury," where the veteran thesp was a drifter with notable martial arts skills. There isn't even the vibe that this character has really lived a full or adventurous life. Our initial encounter with our titular hobo beyond the traveling montage opening credits is where we get to see his revulsion at a sickening group murder.
Turns out, this small Canadian town is run by an ice-cream-suited millionaire simply called The Drake. An older man with a short temper and strong sociopath tendencies, The Drake runs a criminal enterprise big enough that he can claim the attention of the innocents so they can watch him murder one of the "Trailer Park Boys," which is pretty serious, since they could double as Canadian royalty in some provinces. Our hobo watches as this poor man is beaten and beheaded by The Drake and his henchman sons, but he seeks no quarrel, content to pass through.
Of course, he watches as crime starts to escalate, resulting in the threat of violence against a pretty blond hooker (a game Molly Dunsworth) whom he befriends. It's her trust that causes him to take notice and do something about The Drake's reign. Coupled with a startlingly violent attack where he finds that the local police department also sides with The Drake, our homeless hero reacts to the failures of these institutions with a shotgun that might as well be powered by hellfire.
The bleached digital look that gives the film its visual style creates a grimy, disgusting, cheap aesthetic that seemed near-extinct, particularly in the wake of the fakey post-"Grindhouse" tributes that often botched the visual style as much as the content of the era it was presumably celebrating. "Hobo With A Shotgun" resembles the most upsetting of the video nasties, the films found in the most dimly-lit area of your VHS rental outlet, reserved for cheap films that so shamelessly utilized low-budget aesthetics and morals that you came in looking for cheap thrills and came out needing a bath.
Similarly, "Hobo With A Shotgun" has enough cutaway inserts to exploding bodies that it surely stands out was one of the most vile of recent action pictures. The violence is imaginatively blunt, showcasing body parts being flayed practically but reacting unconventionally. Necks and shoulder blades take hacksaws and keep going despite chunks of flesh shooting in all directions. There is lawnmower carnage and it is, fortunately, highly improbable in the damage it can do to a human arm.
But it isn't merely blood and guts. Eisener is smart enough to showcase that The Drake's capitalist rule relies on his handling of the media. Once the local news starts to spotlight the vengeful hero, The Drake finds a way to capitalize on the urban children in the area by using the news to rebrand our protagonist from hero to menace. Furthermore, he allows for a reward for those who would bring the old man to "justice," a reward based on the illusion and misuse of power, which The Drake knows lower-income households recognize as fast cars and loose women (and in one "Bumfights"-inspired scene, self-degradation).
There's considerable power to Hauer's performance. Unlike, say, the otherwise-engaging Danny Trejo in the jokey "Machete," Hauer imbues his character with a quiet dignity and a peaceful serenity. He's sincere in that he's only an old man who can't take it anymore. Further complicating the film's shady moral compass is the fact that Hauer plays his hobo as a man slowly starting to lose his temperament and identity, which results in a nearly delusional figurehead for the story.
The gunshots ring loud and the blood is thick and light red in "Hobo With A Shotgun," which might be all that you need to know. But unlike the mixed immigration messages of "Machete," there's a palpable "us vs. them" tenor to the picture, as we learn in a bizarre third act detour that The Drake's economic-fueled reign of terror may be the result of the century's great equalizers, a duo (or more?) called The Plague. While the gesture is certainly over the top, it earmarks "Hobo With A Shotgun" as one of the few counterculture curios of recent years that honestly feels like it isn't made by the faceless, tasteless fools in charge. [A-]