Why Hobo with a Shotgun is the Most Important Film of Our Generation

by TJ Fink

Whoa. When you craft a title like that, it’s a little intimidating to actually start writing the article itself. Time to put some money where my abnormally speedy mouth is.

I’ve actually been thinking about this subject for a while. I saw Hobo with a Shotgun over the holidays (that’s just how much fun I am on Christmas), and came away immediately impressed. As per my routine after watching a film that evokes such a response, I got on the Google machine to read reviews and research the project’s background. Reviewers’ opinions varied widely. The deeper I dug, the more apparent it became that I had no business offering up any kind of personal commentary on this particular movie. Yet here we are.

You see, Hobo began as a $150–budget trailer in a contest to promote Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Grindhouse double feature. It was received so well, in fact (thanks, Internet!), that the project evolved into a full-length film in 2011. Now, I thoroughly enjoyed Grindhouse, but 2007 was honestly the first time I’d heard of the term. I was born during the mid-80s into a very Christian household, so you can imagine how many violent exploitation movies from that era I was exposed to growing up. Hellfire, I only saw Cannibal Holocaust a few years ago, and that’s where my expertise ended until quite recently. So I never truly appreciated the time period Grindhouse paid homage to until long after the fact.

But that’s actually what I believe lends my voice some credibility. I love cerebral action and horror movies, but every now and again I like to unplug my brain with films that are more about the visuals than any kind of message or social commentary. And I’m totally into violent movies (though not usually “gore-for-gore’s-sake” torture-porn like Hostel, Wolf Creek, etc.). So I was uncertain how I felt about revisiting this genre back in December.

Ultimately I decided to dive in, knowing full well I couldn’t personally identify with the cinematic era Hobo represented; I wouldn’t necessarily pick up on the subtle (or even overt) references that so many reviewers latched on to in their critiques. (The only exception is Hobo’s opening music, but that was obviously a fluke.) Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, even though it didn’t feel like I deserved to. I mean, I didn’t belong to the Grindhouse Club.

I hear their keggers are off the hook.

I’m not exactly part of the minority here. When that first faux-trailer hit, audiences worldwide were instantly clamoring for someone to step in and make Hobo a reality; it’s currently sitting at 67% freshness over at Rotten Tomatoes. The film struck several nerves in our society somehow—both positive and negative ones—and over the past month I’ve occasionally wondered why.

It’s impossible to write a competent review of Hobo without first recognizing its context; taken at face-value, it’s an abhorrently graphic tale about one deplorable character after another. This is how my Presbyterian mother would receive it, I can assure you, and nothing would convince her that any redeeming values lie beneath Hobo’s gritty, intestine-splattered exterior. As a case in point, if she reads the word “shit” in an article or story of mine, she is disheartened at best. It doesn’t matter if I used “shit” to punctuate a joke or mock an annoying celebrity; no, “shit” is a dirty word used by unsavory people, and the fact that I used it makes me unsavory in turn, reflecting poorly on her parental influence. Losing the forest through the trees, if you will. Similarly, Hobo would represent to my mother a direct reflection of our society as a whole, exemplifying how morally bankrupt America has become. Christians often think in hyperbole. (Sorry for tossing you under the bus here, Mom. I’ll get my comeuppance after the Rapture, I know.)

“Is that you weeping beside the Pit of Everlasting Sorrow, son? I promised myself I wouldn’t say ‘I told you so’ during my first visit, but…”

“Ugh, too soon, Mom.”

In a way, I suppose she’s right. Ours is a culture obsessed with violence, sex, and abject profanity—it’s hard to argue with her there. Those three things have always been topics of controversy in movies, television, music, and video games. And these sectors of pop culture push the envelope of what they can get away with every year. That’s why deliberately graphic films like Hobo, The Devil’s Rejects, and Martyrs resonate as pure garbage for [less corrupt] people like my mom: to them, these movies reflect a sin-laden society headed straight for the gutter.

However, this is partially why Hobo resonates with me as well, because it puts me in the unique position of someone who intimately understands each viewpoint (intensely conservative vs. intensely liberal). When a scene unflinchingly portrays a prostitute’s hand getting slowly fed into a lawnmower (the irony of that moment just now occurred to me, by the way), it’s going to grab your attention. When you watch a grown man meet his end via barbed-wire noose and a 1974 Ford F-150, it’s going to leave an impression. That’s part of the point.

These little brats are soooo not getting birthday cards this year.”

And while the imagery is ridiculously vicious, it’s not intended to be taken seriously. That’s why it’s so absurd and over-the-top. (Though I will say the school bus scene was simultaneously brilliant and hauntingly disturbing for me.) The challenge, if you have the stomach for it, is to find those hidden nuggets of awesome that separate Hobo from its mindlessly violent counterparts. For example:

Slick’s death. As anyone could have predicted, the character of Slick gets what’s coming to him before long. As he…ugh, bleeds out, he uses a payphone to call his kingpin dad, the Drake, and say goodbye. This is the one and only time in the film that either character exhibits love or affection to anyone. Well, their demented version of it, anyway. Salvation has passed these gentlemen by long ago—you can hear it in Hauer’s brilliantly delivered “Dear boy” as he pulls the trigger—but some miniscule piece of Slick and the Drake’s long-dormant humanity remains. When the school bus to Hell arrives and Slick tells his pop how “rad” he is, well, that’s the damn craziest piece of poetry I’m ever seen.

“…Also, I once farted on your face while you were taking a nap on the couch—you grimaced but didn’t wake up. I…I’ve just been feeling guilty about that for years…”

The Plague. Holy shit! Is that not such a simple yet mind-blowing concept for a pair of villains?

Ivan’s skates. Sorry Mom, I don’t mean to glorify the violence too much, but that’s a damn novel weapon if you ask me. And that one line—“I ruin everything!”—is spinechillingly sadistic.

Rutger Hauer. And finally, I’ll get to the authenticity of Rutger Hauer’s hobo character. While every other lead actor (save for Molly Dunsworth) hammed up the extremity of their roles to the point of living, breathing cartoon characters, Hauer’s performance is wink-and-nod–free; that is, the titular hobo is absolutely sincere about his actions/reactions to the warped population of Hope City. When Abby the not-evil-yet prostitute (Dunsworth) takes him to her apartment, cleans his wounds, and offers him a place to stay for the night, his humble, reluctant response is both genuine and oddly touching (along with his story about bears).

And what a brilliant monologue at the hospital. Brilliantly written, but expertly executed. I like it so much I’ll include it here in its entirety:

“A long time ago I…was one of you. All brand-new and perfect. No mistakes, no regrets. People look at you and think of how wonderful your future will be. They want you to be something special…like a doctor or a lawyer. I hate to tell you this, but if you grow up here, you’re more likely to wind up selling your bodies on the streets, or shooting dope from dirty needles in a bus stop. And if you’re successful, you’ll make money selling junk to crackheads. And you won’t think twice about killing someone’s wife, because you won’t even know it was wrong in the first place. Maybe…you’ll end up like me: a hobo with a shotgun. I hope you can do better.”

“Some of you might grow up to be English majors. Honestly, the crack’s a safer bet.”

The hobo’s response to the hyper-realistic violence surrounding him is as authentic as the rest of Hauer’s performance. He might be mentally unstable, but he’s still a virtuous person, and by the time he reaches for that shotgun, his hand is almost literally forced to do so.

So have I sold you yet? Is this not the most influential film of our generation? Didn’t think so. However, one of the first reviews I read on Hobo posited something I’d like to play devil’s advocate with. I’ll give the context its due:

“As Hauer’s thoughtful and sympathetic performance indicates, there was potential for much more than a parade of ‘so shocking it’s quaint’ violence (there is, to be fair, one genuinely outrageous moment involving a flamethrower). The idea of a homeless man becoming a vigilante in the real world, not the stylized and hyper-violent landscape presented, presents the potential to be a real movie with real thought and commentary.”

For the record, I agree with most of these sentiments; it would indeed be an excellent premise to plunk Hauer’s character into a more realistic setting, and the results more meaningful. But I’m here to tell you it can be a truly unpleasant world we live in these days, and the fictionalized violence of exploitation-era films occasionally makes its way into reality (at least depending on who you talk to).

So yes, I think Hobo with a Shotgun has plenty of social commentary to offer, and plenty of thought-provoking moments that are worthy of serious discussion. Because when you watch the news every now and then, don’t you get fed up sometimes? Can’t you identify on some level with someone who has nothing to lose just saying, “Enough’s enough”? Doesn’t a tiny, tiny part of you want to reach for a shotgun?

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13 Comments

  1. As a lover of bad/good movies, I thoroughly enjoyed the shit outta this movie. I had gotten into bad/good movies around 2004, and by the time Grindhouse came along I was right there for the ride. You can bet I saw this in theaters and had a ball. Hauer was perfect in this. When I heard rumors that they were making the trailer into an actual film, he was the FIRST actor that popped into my head. So I was very pleased with his choice.

    Oh and thanks to this movie I finally found the sub-genre of 80’s inspired electro-synth music (Powerglove did the “Plague” theme).

  2. While I enjoy your rambling commentary, you don’t make a clear case for the cultural significance of “Hobo.” Speaking as a hyper-conservative reformed atheist (yes, seriously) who also happens to love exploitation films and the weird and macabre in general, I also thought the movie was great on a number of levels- as satire, as a hyper-violent action/exploitation movie, and most importantly as a heartfelt plea for heroes that society desperately wants. Perhaps “Hobo’s” most important aspect, however, gets short shrift in your article/monologue: the fact that this movie was made based on a homemade ‘trailer’ that won a huge contest. It won hearts and minds because it struck a nerve in people that desperately want for someone to stand up and say, ‘That’s enough.’ That took it from a short film that was probably made for little to no budget to a (relatively) very commercially and critically successful movie. An exponentially successful labor of love. Like I said, I think you make a lot of good points and I agree that the movie is significant, I just differ on what I think MAKES it significant. Love the site and keep up the good work!

  3. I haven’t seen this movie, but I may have to now.
    I did want to ask, have you seen A Boy and His Dog?
    While not particularly graphic or creepy, it’s my favorite movie for two reasons. The main one being that, in my opinion, none of the main characters have any redeemable qualities. I think it’s hard to make an interesting story where even the protagonist is… ugh.

  4. I am fairly confident that, given the time, I could write a thesis comparing “Hobo With a Shotgun” to “Citizen Kane” in a way that would not enrage film historians.

  5. Dude, if you really loved this film that much, you are drowning your cinematic soul by acting like you’re above grindhouse fare. Hobo With a Shotgun was a cool retro film, and I enjoyed watching it, but it’s the equivalent of listening to tribute bands instead of the acts they are aping. There is no better era of film than the 70’s. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve used the phrase “they just don’t make them like that anymore” when describing some slice of 70’s awesomeness to somebody. Those movies were simply bolder, more extreme, and more unafraid of what anybody else thought than anything before or since. You think flicks like Clockwork Orange or The Exorcist would win best picture Oscars in this day and age? Yeah, I’ll bet everyone would come out to support a movie that features a little girl stabbing her bloody vagina with a crucifix screaming “fuck me, Jesus!” and then shoving her mother’s face into her crotch commanding her to lick it. Grindhouse films are what happens when filmmakers don’t have to worry about their film getting killed by big studios for not appealing to children. It’s cinema for grown-ups, and it accommodates as much metaphor, visual poetry, social commentary, and everything else that makes film art as any other genre. They aren’t all about ridiculous, cartoonish violence, bad acting, or “Torture porn” (if you want to use such juvenile terms”). That’s just what people are shown and latch onto for novelty’s sake. There’s plenty of films like that, but it’s hardly the genre’s calling card.

  6. @trashcanman
    In asserting that I’m “acting like I’m above grindhouse fare,” I think you’re missing one of my main points. The reason that I was reluctant to write this article in the first place (as I allude to in the second paragraph) is because of how unfamiliar I was/am with that specific cinematic era, and I’m loath to publish personal opinions on topics I’m not intimately familiar with. Where’s the authority in that as an author? I wasn’t kidding when I said I was born during the mid-80s into a conservative, Christian household, and by the time I was even old enough to watch a PG-13 movie (without adult supervision), the era of exploitation films was long past. But even if it wasn’t, does is sound like a mother repelled by the word “shit” would have had copies of The Exorcist or Clockwork Orange laying around? I never saw either of those until college, once I no longer lived under their roof. When you say “they don’t make them like that anymore,” well, I was never around/alive for the “anymore” part. By the mid-90s, I was probably still obsessed with Spiderman cartoons (thank god my mom allowed them).

    Sure, I loved Grindhouse and Machete, and I knew they were both throwbacks to the 70s and 80s for some reason, but I didn’t start to research exploitation films until after I saw Hobo. That’s when I realized that to a large degree, these 4 movies satirized a genre I had no idea existed (in a previous article I actually mention that I’m an ‘aspiring’ cinephile, I believe). Yet I’d genuinely enjoyed them all in their own right. But why was that? How could I so readily identify with the satire of an era I’m completely unfamiliar with? This bled into my second point (pun!), which is that HWAS contains myriad thematic elements that, despite the skin-deep guts and glamour, are relevant in today’s society (and to me). I’m hardly looking down on authentic Grindhouse cinema; rather, I’m beginning to explore in earnest a genre that I now know appeals to me.

    As an experiment, try re-reading the first section of this piece after first removing the 4th paragraph entirely. What I meant to express there was that I like cerebral action/horror flicks and also like intensely violent movies in general, but at the time (before watching HWAS) it appeared that these new grindhouse-style movies fell somewhere in between, and I wasn’t sure what to make of that until I dug deeper.

    @Shaggoth_King
    Significance is often in the eye of the beholder, yes? 😉

  7. I’ll forego the long paragraph’s as I’m not as smart as some of the dudes above and just say… I fucking hated this movie! I just couldn’t shut the part of my brain that loves great acting and story telling off.

  8. Hobo was sort of like “Planet Terror” or “Machete” if all the fun was taken out of them. The baddies were too one-note and super-evil to feel worthy of our attention. In Rodriguez’ grindhouse films *spoilers* Bruce Willis and Jeff Fahey’s bad guys are a war hero and a politician’s lackey respectively, but in Hobo the bad guys are a family of “evil drug kingpins” who, for some inexplicable reason, apparently control everything.

    The introduction of The Plague was initially pretty dull. We’d already seen a ton of gratuitous violence before they arrived, so while they had a more interesting weapon it didn’t really make much of an impression. However, towards the end a rather interesting idea surrounding their mythology was brought up, only to completely fail to be used. (SPOILER apparently anyone who kills a member of The Plague MUST join The Plague. How do they enforce this? Were members of The Plague previously ordinary people who just wanted to stand up against the violence? We’ll never know. And there goes the only vaguely interesting idea in the entire movie. *sighs*)

    Hobo With A Shotgun features a fantastic performance from Rutger Hauer, who seems to be the only person in the whole thing who fully understood what kind of movie he was in. No one else seems to feel like a real person. Of course, it’s not really the actors’ faults. Unlike nearly every character in the movie (including a nurse) Rutger Hauer is one of the few characters whose dialogue isn’t littered with reference to “whores” for shock value.

    I’m okay with sex, violence, swearing and nudity. What I’m not so okay with is films which bore me to death. And believe it or not, the former doesn’t prevent the latter.

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