Instant Watch: Modern Grindhouse Revenge Films

On this edition of Instant Watch, we'll take a look at two strange spins on revenge films available to stream instantly on Netflix. They aren't just modern versions of the genre; they're modern Grindhouse films. That means cracks, strange synth scores, absurdest humor, gratuitous violence, and no clear social message in spite of or because of the writers and directors' intentions and skills. Grindhouse films, also known as exploitation films, take low budget filmmaking to the extreme. Sometimes it's extreme car chases; other times, extreme sex and violence. The creators had limited resources and big ideas. They did what they could to get the message across. These were the films that couldn't get mainstream distribution, for better or worse. They played mostly in dilapidated and converted burlesque and vaudeville houses. It's a certain kind of film that still gets made today. The difference with these two films is the intentional decision to take a marketable concept and shoot it in the Grindhouse style.

Hobo with a Shotgun (2011)

Rutger Hauer (The Hitcher, Blade Runner) stars as the titular grizzled old hobo who acquires a shotgun. Do you really need more information than that to know if you want to see this film?

When the hobo hops off the freight train in a new city, he is shocked by what he sees. People are getting away with rape, murder, violence, theft, and mayhem all day without any punishment. One particularly sadistic man, Drake (Brian Downey), and his two sons, Slick (Gregory Smith) and Ivan (Nick Bateman), seem to run this crime town. The hobo begins to follow them around after witnessing a brutal decapitation that people were encouraged to applaud. Can a lawless man restore order to a criminal city?

Hobo with a Shotgun is a whole lot better than it has any right to be. This is the kind of film that people will watch just to see the violence and mayhem that ensues. If they throw enough blood on the screen, the target audience will watch. Director Jason Eisner and writer John Davies elevate this picture to something any real film fan can enjoy.

For one thing, there is actual character development. We feel sympathetic for the hobo because he earns our sympathy with his actions and words. The damsel in distress is not just a shirking violet and the villains--though sadistic--are meatier than your normal Grindhouse-styled feature. Even smaller characters, like a receptionist at the hospital, seem to have actual depth and motivations for their actions. It's refreshing to see actual characters in a film like this.

The cinematography is beautiful. Karim Hussain washes every scene in a variety of filters to create the neon hues of light up signs. I was especially impressed by the filming inside of the buildings. One apartment is cast in a mix of red, pink, and blue that adds an incredible level of visual interest to a very static scene. When the action is really moving, the colors are still bright but less varied. One scene might be all yellow; the next, all green. Yet it flows together because of the saturation of the filter and obvious digital editing in post to create the consistent colors. It means that this is a shockingly beautiful film.

The make-up effects are fantastic. The entire team does everything from make the homeless look ill, tired, and worn out to torching human flesh to ripping off limbs in a believable way. It's grotesque but not gratuitous. They knew the exact point at which to cut off the blood flow to get just the right effect. For a revenge film about a homeless guy with a shotgun, it's surprisingly restrained.

If you can get past the violence, Hobo with a Shotgun is a really great film. It's engaging, well-produced, and justifies its more slapstick moments with an actual story and characters. It's darkly humorous and shocking in the best way possible.

Rating: 7/10

Rubber (2010/2011)

Where Hobo with a Shotgun elevates the Grindhouse film, Rubber tries to deconstruct it. Any plot description you've heard about this film is a lie. This is not a revenge movie about a rubber tire with psychic powers killing people. This is a meta-theatrical parody about people watching real life as a film where other people are unintentionally in a film about a rubber tire with psychic powers. There's a big difference.

Writer/director Quentin Dupieux has created a seemingly-interminable parody of Grindhouse revenge films. If you look at just the parts about the tire, he hits all the revenge film beats with a dry absurdest wit. Of course a tire can't actually show emotion or act for the camera; it's a tire. The idea that a tire would track someone down and kill them for rolling it down the street is pointless.

That is Dupieux's point. The revenge film as a construct is absurd on face value. Normal people you would root for do not go out seeking revenge like this. It is entirely a fabrication of the entertainment industry that a sane person would do this kind of thing. Real life revenge cases are committed by people who--from illness or rage--are not of their right mind. Glorifying anyone who takes justice into their own hands with a lot of blood is as ridiculous as believing a tire can develop psychic powers and go on a rampage.

The problem is that Dupieux does not actually set his sights on the revenge film. Most of the running time deals with the actors in the film who are watching the real life film of the other actors who do not know they are actors in the film. Does that sound needlessly confusing? It's not. It's just stupid.

The tourists paid money to see a one of a kind film. They stand back and comment on action we do not get to see. They comment on piracy, Hollywood tropes, movie theater etiquette, the plausibility of psychic powers and film physics, and all sorts of entertainment concerns that mean nothing outside of the screening of a film. It's unnecessary navel-gazing that goes off the deep end about halfway through the film. A twist is supposed to end the film early but doesn't. This sets the actors in the live film that don't know they're actors into a tailspin of repetitive action.

Not that the action was repetitive before. The first time we see the tire, it does the same exact thing three times in a row before any variation happens. It approaches an obstacle, weighs its strengths, and runs it over. The third time, it has to use its psychic powers to finish the job afterwards. This means the tire shakes for a few seconds before its target explodes. This exact action is repeated every single time something happens during the rest of the film.

This is not the fault of the actors--they're fine. Nor is it the technical filmmaking. The picture is clear, the soundtrack is appropriate, and the design and effects are competent. Rubber is just a bad picture because the writer/director really missed in creating some grand social statement and had nothing of interest to fall back on.

Rating: 3/10

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Lucille Ball and Mame as Told by Lucille Ball

Flick or Skip: The Help (Opens 10 August 2011)