(1984) Written and directed by Alex Cox; Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, Emilio Estevez, Sy Richardson, Fox Harris and Tracey Walter; Available on DVD.
“A repo man is always intense.” – Bud
Maybe it’s my L.A. roots, or my affection for punk rock, or the quirky mishmash of social commentary and comedy, but Repo Man keeps drawing me back into its hypnotic trance. Unlike some of its contemporaries, Repo Man didn’t take years to cultivate its cult status, but earned its reputation practically out of the gate. It was almost as if it had been engineered to attract a group of loyal devotees and leave the general movie-going public scratching their collective heads. British screenwriter/director Alex Cox wove in his observations about society (including televangelists, conspiracy theories and generic supermarket food*), based on his experiences living in Los Angeles as a film student. Producer (and ex-Monkee) Mike Nesmith had the unenviable task of selling this strange brew to studio executives who just didn’t get it and failed to see its potential appeal.
* One of the brilliant running gags in Repo Man is the extensive use of real and fake generic food, including cans simply marked “food” and “drink,” suggesting our culture’s focus on sustenance rather than nourishment.
Emilio Estevez, stars in his best film role as Otto, a directionless punk who’s disgusted and bored by everyone and everything. Cox commented that the Otto character was a “blank page” that was influenced by outside events. Otto serves the function of a postmodern everyman, viewing the rest of humanity through his flawed lens. He’s the most “normal” character amongst a band of misfits who probably wouldn’t function outside the confines of their individual contexts. His apathetic hippie parents leave him to his own devices as they sit in front of their TV in a zombielike stupor. Otto stumbles into the auto repossession business by accident, instantly becoming embroiled in their dangerous and bizarre world. The repo company employees have become his new surrogate family (albeit a dysfunctional one). He’s not very good at his new job, however, managing to get beaten up, shot at, and maced – all within the space of a couple days.
The ever-reliable Harry Dean Stanton plays the perpetually buzzed veteran repo man Bud. He assigns himself as Otto’s mentor, extoling the virtues of the repo man way of life while proselytizing about the ills of society. He thrives off of situations that others would find distasteful, stating that repo men are always getting themselves into tense situations. Bud lives by the “repo man creed,” which sounds suspiciously like Isaac Asimov’s first law of robotics (just replace “robot” with “repo man”). Stanton’s grizzled appearance perfectly fits his character, looking as if he hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in 30 years, and could keep this behavior up for another 30 years. Cox commented that he was attracted to Stanton’s “Old West cadaver look,” when casting the role of Bud, and it’s easy to see how Bud wouldn’t look out of place in a western as an undertaker (if that undertaker happened to be hopped up on crank).
Tracey Walter stands out in a memorable supporting role as Miller, an employee of the repo yard. He serves as the resident wise man, dispensing cockeyed wisdom such as, “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.” He seems to have a theory about everything, which he unabashedly shares with Otto. Miller espouses his beliefs about cosmic coincidences, UFO phenomena and the significance of tree-shaped air fresheners, all of which prove to be true within the context of the film.
Repo Man’s central plot concerns a 1964 Chevy Malibu from New Mexico with dead aliens in the trunk. Its driver is the lobotomized scientist J. Frank Parnell (played with eccentric aplomb by Fox Harris), blissfully unaware that he’s being pursued by two competing repo agencies and the feds. The repo men want the Malibu for its $20,000 bounty, while the feds desire its precious cargo. With an obvious nod to Kiss Me Deadly, the glowing whatsit in the trunk spells certain death for anyone foolhardy enough to take a peek.
Nothing really adds up to much, but that’s not the point. Repo Man is a picaresque trip through the filthy underbelly of L.A., with Otto as your unwitting guide. Cox’s film possesses an undeniable sense of energy, propelled by the promise of illicit thrills and a driving punk rock soundtrack (with Iggy Pop providing the title song and atmospheric surf rock incidental music by The Plugz). The final scene is reminiscent of the climactic, transformative sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, suggesting that everything we believe is wrong. Otto is taken for a literal and figurative ride through a bewildering series of trials and oddly connected events. And we’re all invited to watch from our backseat vantage point.