When Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino paid homage to the gory and frequently repellent exploitation films of the 1970s in their 2007 movie Grindhouse, they held a contest for the best mock grindhouse trailer. Jason Eisener and his friends in Dartmouth, N.S., submitted Hobo With a Shotgun, featuring non-actor David Brunt as a down-and-outer pushed past his limits and intent on pumping lead into the crooks running the town.
They won the contest. Distributor Alliance Atlantis ran the trailer alongside Grindhouse in Canadian theatres. Eisener, writer John Davies and producer Rob Cotterill developed the trailer into a feature-length film, just as Hollywood had done with the Grindhouse trailer for Machete. Rutger Hauer ( Blade Runner, The Hitcher) agreed to play the hero on condition the movie be given more heart. Done, said Eisener, scarcely able to believe his luck.
The movie was shot in Dartmouth and Halifax on a budget of $3-million. It won critical raves. The magazine Film Threat gave it the highest accolade in fanboy circles: "This is what everyone wanted from Snakes on a Plane but didn't get."
At this point, those unfamiliar with grindhouse films should be advised – heck, consider it a neon warning five stories high – that this is a film for the genre-hardened. It is built to offend. It assumes that an audience keen to see the visceral depiction of decapitations, disembowelments and application of chainsaws to innocent necks will appreciate darkly funny asides and assess the merits of low-budget special effects even as the subject matter would turn other stomachs. To underline the pathology of the family that runs Hopetown, renamed Scumtown by a helpful vandal, the filmmakers spare no one – not the homeless, not schoolchildren.
With that out of the way, let it be noted that Eisener and his colleagues have made a pitch-perfect genre film. They do an excellent job of making audiences care about the hobo and about Abby (Molly Dunsworth), the prostitute whom the hobo rescues and who, in turn, shelters him when the evil crime boss Drake exhorts townspeople to kill everyone living on the streets. That's the heart Hauer was talking about.
In a lengthy extra on this week's two-disc DVD, Eisener discusses his steep learning curve. After receiving what he thought was a huge budget – "the last time somebody gave a kid from Dartmouth $3-million, there were drugs involved" – he realized the money wouldn't cover his ambitious project. He and others "basically had to give our paycheques back to the film in order to make it work."
Familiar Canadian faces dot the terrain, sometimes literally. Brian Downey, who was memorable as the dweebish Stanley Tweedle in the science-fiction series Lexx, plays a theatrically sadistic Drake. Robb Wells, who starred as Ricky in the series Trailer Park Boys (and is credited here as Rob), shows up early in the film as Drake's brother. His rude demise sets the tone for the carnage to follow. CBC talk-show host George Stroumboulopoulos has a couple of scenes as a newscaster before the character's career is cut short by a sharp skate. Don't ask.
There is one curiosity. Someone should write a thesis on dental inconsistencies in motion pictures, whereby characters who by rights should have horrible or missing teeth enjoy the sparkling white teeth of the actors who portray them. Nicolas Cage provided an example in the recent film Season of the Witch. Hauer provides it here.
But don't be concerned. If you catch this film, the state of the characters' teeth will be the least of your worries.
Also new this week:
For true believers
Of Gods and Men (2010)
Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes and loosely inspired by a real 1990s event, this slow-paced French tale of an Algerian monastery in crisis rewards the patience. If the monks remain in the war zone, they risk being slaughtered. If they leave, they abandon the people who count on them for guidance and support. The cast includes Michael Lonsdale and Lambert Wilson, whose character, when asked whether the monks should just lie down and die if attacked, delivers the understatement of the year: "It's a risk."
For a wake-up call
The Company Men (2010)
The recession reaches into the wealthy ranks of corporate life in Boston, and Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones are cut loose. Writer-director John Wells takes a measured look at the way people cope when their self-image is shaken, their relationship to their family changes and, particularly in the case of Affleck's character, their arrogance is punctured. By the way, if anyone is to be laid off, it should be whoever placed an annoying, unskippable car commercial on the Blu-ray just before the movie.
For Uma completists
It's always good to see Uma Thurman, and Lee Pace has his moments as the complex man her character is about to marry. Trouble is, this indie drama by Max Winkler (son of actor Henry, the Fonz) is all about Sam (Michael Angarano), who is intent on breaking up the wedding because he still loves ex-flame Zoe (Thurman). Sam is a real jerk. He is insufferable to everyone, including the poor sap (think of sidekick Cameron from Ferris Bueller's Day Off) he tricks into driving him to the ceremony. Bottom line: It's tough to care.