Every year at Sundance there are a number of actors and actresses who show up in multiple works. This year is no exception, with the usual breakout “it” girls (Elizabeth Olsen and Brit Marling), established talents (Greg Kinnear and John C. Reilly, among others) and deservingly showcased character actors. One of my favorites this year is Robert Longstreet, who appears in a whopping four titles (“Septien,” “Catechism Cataclysm,” “Take Shelter” and “The Oregon”).
But the person people seem to be the most excited about this year, myself included, is Rutger Hauer, who balances his new theatrical release, “The Rite,” with a fantastic double duty at the fest with the very dissimilar and differently amazing “Hobo With a Shotgun” and “The Mill and the Cross.”
“Hobo” has received the greater attention of the two, for quite obvious reasons. It’s a fun, comically violent throwback reminiscent of early Troma films, only much better looking, in which Hauer stars hysterically as the title hobo with the title shotgun. Based on what was initially a fake trailer, winner of a competition where the prize was placement of the trailer on Canadian prints of “Grindhouse,” it is in some ways a lookalike cousin of last year’s “Machete.”
However, I think it’s better than “Machete” (which I enjoyed), because it doesn’t need to reach for any political issues. Maybe you could say it addresses public apathy, a theme it would share with the popular Slamdance documentary “Superheroes” (both films also include a car smashing into a homeless man’s shopping cart). Or, the easy target of mass desensitization to violence.
Really, though, it’s best to just think of it as a recall of the exaggerated reflections of urban decay seen in films of the ‘70s and ‘80s. And because of that irrelevancy to anything present it can simply be enjoyed. That is, if you can stand a lot of blood and gore, children being burned alive in a school bus, limbs being whacked off by a lawnmower blade, people being stabbed with ice skates and other shocking, debauched, so-astounding-its-hilarious violence.
Of course, there is also much shotgun action, including one moment that joins “Piranha 3-D” in having nasty fun with castration — and showing just a tad too much. You definitely get what’s promised by the name of the movie, and unlike some other title-is-synopsis features (“Snakes on a Plane”), “Hobo” is entirely satisfying as a movie, too. It’s an urban western in which an outsider (Hauer) arrives in a relatively lawless town, cleans up and brings justice with the help of a young prostitute (newcomer Molly Dunsworth) — humorously for the western fans, Hauer’s hobo keeps calling her a schoolteacher, a play on the genre’s conventional character types — by bringing down a brutal clan led by a weaselly maniac named Drake (Brian Downey).
The one thing that might link “Hobo With a Shotgun” and “The Mill and the Cross,” other than Hauer, is that both feature scenes of torturous execution involving men attached to wheel-shaped objects (in “Hobo” it’s a cleverly altered manhole cover; in “Mill” I guess it’s technically an actual wheel, but not used as such). Broader comparison would include the fact that both are adapted from what turns out to be a segment of the film’s narrative.
In the case of “Mill,” that previously visualized segment has nothing to do with cinema. The film, directed by Lech Majewski (best known in the states for co-writing “Basquiat”), is based on the painting of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s populous 1564 masterpiece “The Procession to Cavalry.” More than a mere artist biopic, it concentrates on the single work and brings it to life, as part tableau vivant, with actors and some beautiful CG matte work.
While in “Hobo” he’s the centerpiece, in “Mill” Hauer only appears now and then as the painter, sketching the scene and discussing it with his patron (Michael York, who appears to be turning into Christopher Plummer). Otherwise it’s a mostly dialogue-and-plot-free look at what was going on in Bruegel’s world prior to what he masterfully documented of it on the canvas. Documented is the key word, because I occasionally thought of the film as an all-reenactment documentary of “life in a day” in Flanders in the 16th century.
Yet due to the painting being a re-creation of the crucifixion of Jesus, it’s hard to really get behind either “Procession” or “Mill” as representing any kind of true scene of the time. Did Bruegel really witness a scene like this? Perhaps something similar he adapted to the Biblical parallels? Even if so, those gorgeous observations of the painting’s characters’ lives are still purely speculative, particularly the idea that the mountain beneath the windmill is hollow, with a winding staircase that takes the miller up into it.
Some of the scenes look familiar, as though inspired by other Flemish and Dutch paintings of the era and later. I thought as much of the shadowy post-Renaissance works as the relatively bright and cartoony work of Bruegel, which may have been intended since the film does take place at a transitional time artistically. Regardless, I was engrossed with every shot, traveling through the mise-en-scene as thoroughly as I would a still artwork.
My eyes had their best cinematic trip since “Tron: Legacy” (or maybe even “Enter the Void”). But I don’t know how many others can appreciate “living classics” as much as I do, even with stunning special effects and cinematography. Are you a fan of Akira Kurosawa’s “Dreams,” Julie Taymor’s “Frida,” Jan Svankmajer’s “Lunacy” Peter Webber’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and the general work of Peter Greenaway (as well as anything else incorporating a sort of tableau vivant that I’m forgetting)? Then see “The Mill and the Cross.”