SXSW Review: ‘Hobo with a Shotgun’ Delivers Shakespearean Levels of Depravity

By  · Published on March 20th, 2011

Hobo with a Shotgun is a gritty, nasty, depraved movie that no parent should let their child watch…and I loved every goddamn minute of it. It’s rare that we film journos are given the opportunity to be reduced to slimy, foul-mouthed 12-year-olds within the safe confines of a movie theater, but I’ll be a tiny little bastard if this film didn’t turn me into…a tiny little bastard. Its brazen conceit and relentless insanity touched upon all the things that pint-sized Brian loved about watching movies. But, as Attack the Block taught us, it’s not simply enough to compile the various pieces of genre films in a room together and expect them to play nice. And while Hobo with a Shotgun isn’t aiming for the same socially relevant subtext and deeper meaning of Attack the Block, within the rules it establishes from the onset, it shoots for the same high score in excellence.

Scratch the surface of Hobo with a Shotgun, divorce yourself from the wickedly indecent content, and you will find a damn fine film that excels on almost every technical and artistic level. I am incredibly impressed with Jason Eisener as a director. There is a certain expectation with which one enters a film knowing that it began life as a trailer created to win a contest. But Eisener goes to such great lengths to tell his story in a way that is both stylishly entertaining and visually interesting that it’s hard not to be taken in by it. First off, the performance from Rutger Hauer in the titular role is phenomenal. He brings such sincerity and sympathy to the part that even at his most bloodthirsty or silliest, the hobo is a tragic figure to whom your heart goes out.

The camera angles Eisener employs and the composition of certain shots refutes any notion that Hobo with a Shotgun exists on a purely gimmicky level. In fact, Eisener’s refusal to lean on the recognizably inferior aspects of bad films of yesteryear automatically sets this film apart from both the nefarious titles on which it is based and certain recent cinematic attempts to play to audience nostalgia. Gone is the warped film, the time-traveling jump cuts, and the thick film grain and in its place is a film with all the spirit but decidedly few of the visual impairments.

If that vexes you, if you are the kind of person that can only recognize homage when it is spelled out for you in scratches on the screen, bear in mind that Hobo with a Shotgun is not, as much as its inception would suggest, trying to be Grindhouse. Or, possibly more to the point, Hobo with a Shotgun is Grindhouse for the VHS generation. As much as I love cult film of all eras, and Junkfood Cinema has allowed me to wear my celebration of schlock as a badge of honor, the painful truth is many of the films referenced in Grindhouse only entered my life within the last few years. Sure, there were a couple movies from the 70s I saw as a kid, but they weren’t in the psuedo seedy mom-and-pop movie houses or the idyllic rustic utopia of the drive-in. I saw them at home by the good grace of my very exhausted VCR, and back then, I much preferred the films of the 80s that would have been touted as complete failures were it not for the birth of home video. My film education came in boxes the size of encyclopedias and those are the films to which Hobo with a Shotgun pays most tribute.

Hobo with a Shotgun, with its unabashedly wild-eyed violence and envelope-pushing paucity of mortality, doesn’t just exist in another era but rather on its own planet. If one had to classify this planet I think few would argue it could be called Troma-7 in the Enzo Castellari galaxy. The Troma influence on Hobo is palpable. Not only does it replicate Troma’s commitment to grossing out its audience, treating women like mere breast vessels, and showcasing the world’s most insignificant regard for human life, there are distinct photographic choices that honor cinema’s seediest production company. The color scheme of seemingly drug-induced purples and blues are strikingly familiar as are the dutch shots of blood-spattered characters spouting obscenities. Now, I’ve never really liked Troma mostly because their production values are appalling and no one ever looks like they are putting forth any effort; enter Jason Eisener. Eisener injects into the equation something Troma never had: quality. His eye for cinematography and his ability to elicit great performances from his actors allows him to craft the greatest Troma movie Troma never had the brains to make.

Apart from Troma, Eisener draws from a unique well that includes Castellari’s post-apocalyptic films, sequels to already marginal 80s slasher films, John Carpenter’s They Live, and even a little Frank Henenlotter to boot. These are the canon of the childhoods of a generation once removed from Tarantino’s; those of us who were kids when he was making his first film. Hobo with a Shotgun is forged from the very tapes our moms wouldn’t let us rent. The ones we had to have our cool, slightly-older cousins rent for us and watch on low volume in the basement after our folks went to sleep. Hobo with a Shotgun is as bang-on as Grindhouse as far as the material from which it draws its inspiration, but Hobo isn’t interested in being obnoxiously auteur with its delivery and is never up-its-own-ass which sadly, as much as I enjoy it, Grindhouse has a tendency to be (I’ll leave you to guess which half in particular). Eisener operates within the world he is reconstructing and seeks to infuse a long-absent level of basic filmmaking quality into his source material and still maintain a cohesive, artfully simple narrative. I say he not only succeeded, but very near literally blew us all away.

The story behind Hobo with a Shotgun is not simply an amusing anecdote. In preparation, and as a unique bit of promotion, for 2007’s Grindhouse, Ain’t It Cool News sponsored a contest to see which young filmmaker could construct the best recreation of a classic grindhouse era trailer. Among the multitude of contestants and their concise homages to the golden age of schlock was the effort of one Jason Eisener. His subtly-titled Hobo with a Shotgun impressed the judges and took first prize; from thence spawning a feature film.

What may read to some as fodder for the DVD commentary, the genesis of Hobo with a Shotgun is a remarkable testament to the passion and ingenuity of the next generation of filmmakers. Eisener, like so many of us, is a geek. He’s a guy that revels in his love for cinema of various genres and marks of quality. Now granted, the line between avid film geek and respected filmmaker is already blurry to the point of being imperceptible. But what is so inspiring and awesome about Eisener’s story is the opportunity with which he was presented and how he transformed gimmick into substance. Eisener could have very easily taken his trailer, which then was greenlit to be a feature, and simply aped all the aping that defined Grindhouse and slap a feature film onto his resume with a few publicity points as a consolation prize. But Jason embraced the opportunity to make a film with both style and aptitude that has introduced us all to Jason Eisener, the undeniably talented feature film director and has us salivating to see more from him. The integration of the blogosphere, the maximization of small windows of opportunity, and the refusal to compromise quality regardless of tone or outlandishness of concept are all attributes of Eisener that instill hope in me for the next wave of young genre filmmakers.

The Upside: Non-stop action that plays to our baser instincts and speaks to the little bastard in all of us.

The Downside: Its very nature makes Hobo with a Shotgun a polarizing film that will either appeal to your movie geek sensibilities or have you scurrying for the exit.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.