For a precious few moments, Hobo With a Shotgun exposes common fears of the homeless, not least being a sudden, violent uprising.
As its title indicates, Hobo With a Shotgun is absurd. Born of the winning entry in Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's 2007 Grindhouse Trailer Contest at SXSW, the movie suggests director Jason Eisener's technical skills, but bleeds out halfway through its scant running time, gut-shot by bad taste and missed opportunities for social commentary.
Adequately craggy and disheveled, Hobo (Rutger Hauer) hops a train to Hope Town looking for a fresh start, but ends up in a nightmare. Turns out the place is populated by deviant crooks and bad cops, all led by a tyrannical gangster known as the Drake (Brian Downey). So you know how bad this guy is upfront, he uses a Jigsaw-worthy contraption -- involving manhole cover, a barbwire noose, and a muscle car -- to decapitate his own brother (Robb Wells) in front of a crowd of onlookers. When a half-naked woman gyrates wildly in the ensuing fountain of blood, the tone is pretty much set.
The Drake's two popped-collared, Wayfarer-wearing sons, Ivan (Nick Bateman) and Slick (Gregory Smith), up the ante by proceeding to rape and pillage their way through town. Hobo arrives in time to save a soft-hearted hooker named Abby (Molly Dunsworth) and so become the Drake's mortal enemy. The rest of the film leads to the inevitable shotgun showdown. The Drake's hunt for Hobo has him menacing everyone in sight, a binge that that culminates with the incineration of a bus full of children.
As the Drake conducts business as usual, Hobo is looking to start his own kind of business, having eyed a lawnmower in a pawnshop window for $49.99. When he can't raise the cash by begging, he hooks up with an experimental filmmaker, performing a series of degrading acts as the camera rolls. As he chews on broken glass, his mouth drips with blood in gruesome close-up. It's a novel moment, to be sure, but it leads nowhere. After all, at this point, Hobo doesn't yet have his shotgun.
Having demeaned himself for money, Hobo's ready to purchase his life-changing lawnmower, but when he witnesses a robbery at the pawnshop, he opts instead for the shotgun -- also selling for $49.99. It appears that cocking that shotgun for the first time is an inspiration, as Hobo embarks on a whopper of a killing spree that yields a double-digit body count and spans the entire second half of the film. He takes to the streets, warning criminals that he'll "cut welfare checks from your rotten skin."
A local headline reading "HOBO STOPS BEGGING, DEMANDS CHANGE," gets a laugh, but it begs the question, what kind of reform can Hobo bring to the hopeless Hope Town? All he can do is brandish his shotgun and spout punny quips. Hobo's targets are small and easy, and so the movie ignores chances for topical socio-economic satire. Instead, it revels in a nonsensical bloodbath disguised as motivated vigilantism.
The upshot is a few moments, at least, that expose common fears of the homeless (including a sudden, violent uprising). In the early stages of his efforts to earn money, Hobo drafts a sign that reads, "NEED MONEY FOR 5-YEAR-OLD SON WITH LOST LEG," but soon revises it with a more truthful explanation: "I AM TIRED NEED $ FOR LAWNMOWER." Yes, fiction is more compelling than Hobo's reality. As he acts out this reality, Hauer makes Hobo both naïve and steely, a victim of the system and a hero looking for an opportunity. Had the film spent any more time on these more complicated questions, it would have needed a different title.
If the film offers few surprises, it completely delivers to the trailer's initial promise, right down to the Technicolor. It captures the grit and color-bleed of '70s pump-action trash cinema to a degree so saturating, it has no chance to exist outside it. But despite its great, gory effort, there's nothing here that Death Wish or Machete didn't do before and didn't do better.