The selling point of "Hobo with a Shotgun" is its primal appeal. No less than D.W. Griffith allegedly deemed a girl and a gun as the minimum requirements for any engrossing movie formula. "Hobo" has both, plus ample doses of exagerrated gore, a faded eighties action star, and the giddy, unfocused energy of an ADD-riddled Saturday morning cartoon. Director Jason Eisner's first feature demonstrates a serious investment in cheap entertainment. Loaded to the gills with thrill-inducing mayhem, "Hobo with a Shotgun" feels almost tribal in its commitment to violence.
And that's at least partially a result of its origin story. The movie's premise was initially outlined in a fake trailer concocted for a 2007 contest to promote the release of "Grindhouse," the nostalgia-laden double-bill concocted by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, which included a few mock trailers of its own in between the features. The "Hobo" trailer not only won the contest but also wound up attached to "Grindhouse" for its Canadian release, thoroughly integrating this gloriously one-note premise into Tarantino and Rodriguez's deranged universe of homage.
The full-length "Hobo" returns to those sensibilities. But rather than expanding on the motifs of grindhouse cinema with deeper aims, as Tarantino might, Eisner inhabits the genre. With an amusing eighties synth score and nary a smartphone in sight, "Hobo" wouldn't have looked out of place at the dirtiest Times Square venue 30 years ago. Shot on the cheap, the movie is nonetheless beautifully photographed by Karim Hussain with a high-contrast, grainy style that reflects the tattered world where Hauer's anonymous hobo resides.
Hopping off a train from nowhere, the hobo finds himself in the insanely corrupt Hope Town (renamed "Scum Town: by its destructive inhabitants). Within minutes, he witnesses the antics of local mob boss The Drake (Brian Downey), who happily yanks off his brother's head while leaving the body dangling inside a manhole. A scantily clad women bathes in the subsequent explosion of blood. And so the movie announces its brash formula. Hauer looks appropriately mortified and over the course of the next 80-odd minutes, his expression transforms into pure fury.
Obviously comfortable in the wizened tough-guy role, Hauer puts on a legitimately crazy performance, muttering nonsensical monologues about the virtues of bear antics and announcing his heroic intentions of doling out justice for sake of Scum Town's terrified residents. After forming an allegiance with equally street smart prostitute Abby (Molly Dunsworth), the hobo gives up on trying to convince the town's nefarious cops to help him out and launches a one-man army against The Drake and his villainous family.
The story only starts to wane once he finally gets his hands on the shotgun. At that point, Eisner stops telling a story and lets the goofiness take over. Which is not to say that the entertainment value vanishes; it just loses focus and explodes into a mess of maniacal set pieces. The final showdown between the hobo and a group of medieval baddies known as The Plague sets out to dazzle the senses and succeeds.
Eisner has toyed with this format before. His twisted short film "Treevenge" imagined a vengeful group of Christmas trees murdering the families that took them captive for the holidays. "Hobo" isn't quite as imaginative, but contains a similarly wacky edge that doesn't come at the expense of production values. Individual scenes work well because the absurdity is enacted with relentless cinematic skill. ("Yes! Cinema!" cried an audience member at the Sundance screening I attended, when Hauer clobbered a mean-spirited youth with his cane.)
Audiences have developed into tremendously self-aware beings; from reality shows to videogames, there's a proliferation of media that draws attention to its creation. The more transgressive the material, the more attention it gets. Thus, "Hobo" stands to gain recognition on a mainstream level just as "The Human Centipede" did before it. (You can play the "Hobo" game on your iPhone and get the basic plot.) So the phenomenon driving "Hobo" involves an old exploitation movie imported into the present day, proving that its appeal has only grown stronger. That conclusion has some dark implications about human nature, but at least "Hobo" knows how to translate its demented ideas into a fun ride.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Already doing well on VOD, "Hobo" should generate strong numbers in limited release and continue to draw attention on DVD.
criticWIRE grade: B+