The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Hobo With a Shotgun

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article What is the appeal of film gore? Is it the road accident fascination - cinematic rubber-necking? Is peering through fingers at what repels/attracts a rites-of-passage impulse - an adolescent thrill which one is likely to leave behind? I remember at school how we’d describe to each other particularly nasty screen deaths in detail (someone being chopped in half in Omen II [1978] was a favourite). Is it just mindless fun? Or is there something deeper at work?

Generically, we usually associate gore with horror, but not exclusively so. Paul Verhoeven ramped up the splatter quotient for space operas with his Starship Troopers (1997). Earlier, Alien (1979), The Thing (1982) and The Fly (1986) had straddled the science fiction and horror divide and generously delivered wet deaths and gross-out effects. And David Lynch appropriated some blood and guts for Wild at Heart (1990) to give his surreal screwball a cruelly absurd edge. The fact that war movies aren’t usually that gory came into public focus with Saving Private Ryan (1998), which, by pumping up blood and guts, made us realise how prissy so many war movies had been; it showed what had more often been hinted at, or covered over by convention. Westerns obviously have their gore in the bloodletting of Sam Peckinpah, but he hasn't been alone in drawing attention to the fragility of a gunslinger's body, especially in the seventies. In 1970, Soldier Blue and A Man Called Horse both went further than blood squibs and shoot outs to show protracted scenes of bodily mutilation. Even Biblical epics got their turn to run red with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004).

Gore has a curious status. On one level, it seems to be an arbiter of the authentic. When Peckinpah and Arthur Penn began showing the effect of bullets on the human body, America had seen the horrors of the Vietnam war and the assassination of a president on television. Maintaining the fiction that clutching a hand to a shirt front, perhaps with a delicate trickle of blood running between the fingers, seemed no longer to be sufficient. And yet gore is often not realistic at all. The bloody climax of The Wild Bunch (1969) is a dangerous nihilistic fantasy, which makes getting shot look quite enjoyable. It is the bloody equivalent of a custard pie fight. Nor was Gibson’s fourteen minute scourging at the pillar in The Passion as historically grounded as was initially lauded. Even Saving Private Ryan’s claims to authenticity should be taken with caution. Gore is reserved for nameless characters on the beach, while the characters we follow die dramatic but less physically explicit deaths. Plus, Spielberg is a filmmaker who introduced gory elements into decidedly nonrealist family entertainment - severed legs in Jaws (1975), melting heads in Raiders (1981) and the human snacks of Jurassic Park (1993) - and so, although his claims to authenticity are valid, there is also a sense that he is equally absorbed simply by the mess of it all.

Of course, Hobo with a Shotgun makes few claims to realism. Following in the tradition of Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste (1987), Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981) and its two sequels, as well as Robert Rodriguez’s more recent Planet Terror (2007), the film relies on the twin reflex of ‘urgh’ and laughter, repulsion and fascination, a ‘did-you-see-that?!’ extremity and an inventiveness which will have favourite clips being described in lurid detail by schoolboys the country over. But this is not to say that the gore is somehow unimportant. It wasn’t for nothing that Quentin Tarantino’s two favourite films of 2004 were reported to have been The Passion of the Christ and Shaun of the Dead. If gore is unserious in comedy, it also retains an element of that in drama (see Jacobean tragedy for innumerable examples of this).

I would avoid as well the phrase cartoonish. The point of cartoons is the characters might get lumps and tweeting birds, they might be flattened or hammered into odd shapes, they might even be sliced and diced and peeled, but they remain on another level integral and, more importantly, dry. Hobo’s gore is very wet. It is the splatter of our internal wet bits, the realisation of the body as just a big bag waiting to burst and spill. It’s disgusting and funny and true, for all the exaggeration and evisceration.

Hobo even has a go at some self-criticism, showing a particularly repugnant camera crew who organise Bum Fight, a series of videos filmed on the street, showing vagrants fighting each other and doing other disgusting things for money. It’s through Bum Fight that Rutger Hauer manages to raise enough money to get himself out of his situation. Of course, by offering the spectacle of bloody self-harm, the villains of the camera crew are aligned with our own blood lust, in the same way that more generally Drake, the major villain of the piece, is played as some kind of demented game show host, presenting bread and circuses to no one in particular (i.e.: us). Of course, we revel in the wet deaths meted out to the bad, but we also get to see a large body count of the innocent; not only that, but the decapitations, beatings, and guttings are performed specifically as entertainment.

It is fairly common for films which exploit violent spectacle to tithe their moral consciences with some apparent regrets or outright self-criticism. Think of Kevin Costner in The Untouchables (1987) suddenly sighing, “where does all this violence come from?” after we’ve been enjoying it in buckets. Perhaps the clearest example of this is Russell Crowe suddenly turning on the crowd in Gladiator (2000), yelling, “Are you not entertained? Is that not why you are here?” As spectators inscribed into the film as the crowd, we might shamefacedly mutter “Quite right, Maximus,” and pretend we had been against all that nonsense from the get go, but we are likely to relax into the next big set piece in the coliseum, and even Maximus seems to forget his qualms and start enjoying himself. (Takashi Miike’s recent 13 Assassins [2010] offers another example of the tendency.)

We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that Hobo with a Shotgun is indeed just good old trashy exploitation fun. Of course it is. But nothing is ever just fun. In fact the film’s own slight queasiness about its central premise - the dehumanising of a section of society so they can effectively be used for deadly and violent entertainment - leads it to ascribe the exact same process to its varied villainy. And queasiness abounds. The love of gore as entertainment is a morally queasy proposal, and it may even be in this fact that its attraction lies. But in an entertainment like this it has to be delimited, and to some extent - if not morally justified - then at the very least morally mitigated.

This Alternate Take was published on July 25, 2011.

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