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Hobo With a Shotgun

2011, Starring Rutger Hauer, Pasha Ebrahimi and Robb Wells. Directed by Jason Eisener (Yer Dead Productions).

The goriest, most delirious Canadian film since the tax shelter slashers ran the Canadian streets full of blood, Hobo With a Shotgun is a sometimes surprising genre throwback that serves up heaping helpings of mayhem and violence, all with that familiar Canadian satirical twist. Dipping in homage to the biggest and best cult cinema of the past, the film is an exhaustingly paced pastiche of exploitation tropes that really strives to outdo itself at each turn and even manages capture some of the "anything goes" atmosphere that ruled the tax shelter films of the 1970s.

Dartmouth, Nova Scotia-based director Jason Eisener had already made an Evil Dead-influenced horror short, The Teeth Beneath, when, he submitted a mock trailer to a contest sponsored by the South by Southwest Film Festival for Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriquez’s Grindhouse in 2007. Steeped in authentic '70s sleaze, Eisener's trailer for a fictitious violent revenge film called Hobo With a Shotgun handily won the contest, became a YouTube sensation and played with Grindhouse theatrically in Canada. For an up-and-coming U.S. director, this would be a nice boost, but for Eisener, working in a smaller pool, he was suddenly catapulted into fame, becoming one of the most well-known Canadian directors in years.

It wasn't long before Eisener, producer Rob Cotterill and screenwriter John Davies capitalized on their online infamy and started work on a feature-length Hobo. It's no easy task to stretch out a high concept trailer to 90 minutes and still sustain an audience's attention, but Eisener and company conjure a vivid Technicolor nightmare that bursts with pulp flavours and oozes litres upon litres of blood.

Hauer plays a nameless hobo who breezes into town on a freight train looking for a new life, only to find that his promise-filled destination--Hope Town--is really a violent and corrupt metropolis of sin and vice. The town is ruled by crime kingpin The Drake (Brian Downey) and his sleazy sons, Slick (Gregory Smith) and Ivan (Nick Bateman), and murder, robbery and mayhem rule the streets. At first, the hobo minds his own business, trying to scrounge up enough spare change to buy himself a lawnmower to start his own lawn-cutting business, but he quickly becomes disgusted with the daily degradation he witnesses, especially when it involves Abby (Molly Dunsworth), a local heart-of-gold hooker he befriends.

The hobo's dreams of suburban tranquility fully evaporate when he's caught in the middle of an armed robbery at a pawn shop. Pushed to his limit, he gives up his quest for the lawnmower and instead grabs a double barreled shotgun that he uses to mow down the robbers before he takes to the streets as an avenging vigilante, striking back against crime's stranglehold on the town. But The Drake won't stand for dissension and threatens to murder every child in the city unless every homeless person is killed first, and then brings in the mysterious, armoured bounty hunters The Plague to finish the job.

Rarely has there been a Canadian film that so gleefully throws out all conventions of good taste and decorum. Not since the early works of David Cronenberg's queasiest works has a theatrically released, federally funded Canadian film so aggressively broken taboos. If you can think of it, Hobo With a Shotgun does it--flamethrowers barbecuing school buses full of innocent children, ice skates used as a deadly weapon, a knife used to carve the word "scum" into the hobo's chest, razor blade-covered baseball bats, severed heads used as hood ornaments, strangulation guns and killer lawnmowers.

Something else that's surprising about the film is Hauer's performance as the hobo. Even though Hobo With a Shotgun deals largely with stock characters and situations that audiences have seen so many times before--something that the film readily admits and tries to have fun with--Hauer plays the hobo with a surprising amount of gravitas. Several scenes manage to eke out some actual emotion between the memorable catch lines and brain-splattering violence.

Though Hope Town--also known as Scum Town and Fuck Town by the criminals that populate it--doesn't explicitly acknowledge its Canadian setting, Eisener still manages to work in enough clues to make it obvious for home-grown viewers, another trope rarely seen since the 1970s. There's older Canadian currency on display and recognizable CanCon stars (George Stromboulopolous and Trailer Park Boys' Rob Wells). But, more than that, the film's respectful, socially progressive characterization of a homeless man that has fallen through the cracks of the system seems indebted to Canada's longstanding socially liberal policies. And making that same homeless man the hero in a vigilante revenge movie may be one of film's most ironic jokes.

And yet the film is quite Canadian in other ways too, especially in its savvy reconfiguration of 1970s and '80s VHS exploitation classics. As outsiders to Hollywood's entertainment machine, Canadians are in a unique place to use satire to critque American material while simultaneously embracing that work. Following closely in the tradition of John Paizs' Crime Wave and more recent work like Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter and Fido, Hobo With a Shotgun pays respectful tribute to American directors from John Carpenter to Walter Hill to Lloyd Kaufmann, even while it recognizes that, on some level, films by such grindhouse directors can be viewed as jingoistic and even ridiculous by pushing their exploitation elements so far over the top.

At least as authentically "grindhouse" than either Death Proof and Planet Terror--and far more Canadian than either--Hobo with a Shotgun manages to bring back a little of the classic tax shelter era flavour while still possibly pointing the way for the future of B-film in Canada. Here's hoping that Eisener, Cotterill and Davies will take viewers back to the run-down theatre in the heart of Fuck Town for a new, equally interesting jolt of Canadian exploitation madness.

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