by J.D. Lafrance
Repo Man (1984) was part of a fascinating trend during the 1980s of foreign filmmakers seeing America through the eyes of an outsider and making films that identified with marginalized figures hanging out on the fringes of society. Some of these directors included German director Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas), Czech Ivan Passer (Cutter’s Way), the Franco-Swiss filmmaker Barbet Schroeder (Barfly), and Liverpool, England-born Alex Cox. Teaming up with legendary Dutch cinematographer Robby Muller, Cox offered a fresh perspective on Los Angeles, a sprawling metropolis that has been the setting for countless films and television shows, by picking locations that hadn’t been seen all that often – “dirty, dingy locations in East L.A. and downtown” with all sorts of abandoning buildings and vacant lots, as the Los Angeles Times observed, naming the film one of the best set in the city in the last 25 years.
Repo Man came out at the height of the Reagan era and was notable for how it proved to be a sharp contrast to the prevailing trend of rampant commercialism with its generic branding of food and drinks and a protagonist that openly rejected material items and a traditional job in search of something else. The film follows the misadventures of a white suburban punk named Otto (Emilio Estevez) who we meet stacking cans of food in a supermarket while co-worker Kevin (Zander Schloss, who’s look and demeanor anticipated Napoleon Dynamite by two decades) sings the jingle for 7-UP to pass the time. For Otto this is the last straw and he quits his job after being confronted by his boss for not properly spacing the cans. He’d much rather party with his punk rock buddies until he catches his best friend Duke (Dick Rude) having sex with a girl he was just about to get with himself before going to get her a beer. Not only rejecting his crappy job but also his punk rock friends, Otto ends up wandering the streets aimlessly until he meets Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), a veteran repossessor of cars, and who unwittingly gets the young man to help repossess his first car.
It’s Otto’s first introduction into a subculture he never thought about before and once he realizes what Bud is, rejects his offer to be a repo man. Otto soon finds out how true the old adage is that you can’t go home again when his perpetually stoned ex-hippie parents have given all of his European trip money to buy a place on Reverend Larry’s Chariot’s of Fire Honor Role to send Bibles to El Salvador. Otto starts working for Bud who takes the young man under his wing and shows him the ropes, telling him how to dress and how things work. Most importantly he tells Otto the Repo Code – “I shall not cause harm to any vehicle nor the personal contents thereof, nor through inaction let the personal contents thereof come to harm.”
The young man takes to the job instantly, getting off on the excitement of not just dealing with angry car owners but also the run-ins with other highly competitive repo men like the Rodriguez brothers – Napoleon (Eddie Velez) and Lagarto (Del Zamora). In some respects, the repossessing racket infuses a lot of the punk rock attitude as Bud famously tells Otto, “An ordinary person spends their life avoiding tense situations. Repo man spends his life getting into tense situations.”
“Not many people got a code to live by anymore,” says Bud to Otto early on in Repo Man. This film is all about personal codes and philosophies. It seems that everyone has their own take on life, from Bud’s Repo Code to Lite (Sy Richardson), another repo man, who has his own code of conduct – he won’t ride with anybody unless they wear a seatbelt. However, Repo Man’s core belief, if you can call it that, comes from pseudo-guru/mechanic Miller’s (Tracey Walter) Lattice of Coincidence philosophy. He views life as “a bunch of unconnected incidences,” with a “lattice of coincidence that lays atop of everything.” This is the structure that Cox imposes on Repo Man, creating several seemingly random events and characters that only occasionally interact with one another, but eventually all are linked together at the film’s end.
Cox uses the initial scenes in the film as a springboard to introduce a variety of unusual characters and situations that contribute to the satirical commentary on everything from television evangelists to hippies to punk rock. Initially, he presents these situations as meaningless, random events: a Chevy Malibu driven by a lobotomized scientist with four dead aliens in the trunk that fry anyone who dares open it (a sly reference to the mysterious box with its own deadly contents in Kiss Me Deadly); three old friends from Otto’s punk days that rob various variety stores for kicks (“Let’s get sushi and not pay!”); a UFO cult dedicated to finding the dead aliens and exposing them to the world on Johnny Carson; and the FBI who are also in pursuit of the Chevy Malibu. Cox has all of these characters, and many more interact with one another throughout the film, keeping Otto and Bud as the focal point, illustrating that what seems like random, arbitrary events are really all connected. Lattice of coincidence indeed.
Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton are excellent as the student and teacher, playing well off each other with the former learning the ropes and the latter doling out words of wisdom. Liberated from Brat Pack fare that he had been most closely identified with, Estevez is quite good as Otto, a directionless young man trying to find a purpose and thinks he’ll find it initially with the repo men but thanks to Miller discovers a higher purpose. Legendary character actor Stanton is in top form as veteran repo man Bud. His weather-beaten features and the laconic way he smokes a cigarette help convey Bud’s world-weariness. After seeing him in countless films as a supporting actor it’s great to see him in a substantial role. Repo Man only reinforced his considerable range as he plays a cranky guy who’s seen it all and has an opinion to go with it. This is in sharp contrast to his nearly mute and extremely vulnerable loner in Paris, Texas (1984).
The supporting cast is also excellent. Sy Richardson is one of the stand-out repo men, playing a cool guy with a badass attitude and a habit of self-mythologizing – he’s the John Shaft of the repossessing set. In one of the film’s reoccurring gags, he introduces Otto to a book that changed his life – a thinly-veiled jab at Dianetics entitled, Dioretix: The Science of Matter Over Mind by X. Rum-Bubba. Tracey Walter as space case Miller is also superb. In most films, Walter has been relegated to nothing roles, but here Cox gives him room to do his thing and he uses the time wisely presenting Miller as maybe the most intelligent guy in the film, or the most insane as he expounds his strange theories (“The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.”) to anyone who will listen. He’s given an opportunity to deliver a fascinatingly wonky monologue about how UFOs are really time machines that comes across as a pisstake on New Age hokum but is ultimately embraced by Otto and proven true at the end of the film.
Repo Man is chock full of hilarious bits pitch black humor, like when a highway patrolman asks a government agent what happened to his comrade who was vaporized in the film’s opening minutes to which she deadpans, “It happens sometimes, people just explode. Natural causes.” There are also all kinds recurring and throwaway gags, like the car with the dead aliens passing by the government truck pursuing it but the FBI agents fail to notice because they have engine trouble. Bud and Otto repeatedly and narrowly miss meeting the latter’s punk pals who have become inept criminals. There ‘s also punk rock band The Circle Jerks who make an appearance in the film as a cheesy lounge band (“I can’t believe I used to like these guys,” Otto says with disdain). One also has to pay attention to background dialogue to get a few funny gems, like the scene where Otto enters a hospital and over the intercom Dr. Benway is being paged for surgery. Benway was one of the main characters in William S. Burroughs’ surreal novel, Naked Lunch.
From the get-go, Cox also establishes a refreshingly uncompromising, bare bones approach and tone to the whole film that, unlike other supposedly anti-establishment films (Heathers and Pump Up The Volume), never lets up. This tone is established with a great punk rock soundtrack featuring the likes of Black Flag, Fear, and the Circle Jerks contributing songs and almost documentary-like photography from Robby Muller. Best of all, Cox isn’t afraid to cast a critical eye on anyone, even poking fun at the film’s own punk aesthetic in a scene where Otto’s friend, Duke dies from a gunshot wound and leaves this touching soliloquy, “I know a life of crime led me to this sorry fate. And yet, I blame society. Society made me what I am.” It’s the old juvenile delinquent/punk cop out, which Cox exposes so well as Otto replies, “That’s bullshit. You’re a white suburban punk, just like me.” Repo Man is unforgivingly anti-materialistic, anti-commercialism, anti-consumerism, and anti-establishment – a welcome relief from the cultural wasteland that was the mid-1980s.
The quasi-cosmic climax of Repo Man sees Cox playfully thumbing his nose at sacred cinematic cows like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) when, much like Richard Dreyfuss’ everyman in the latter film, Otto has to choose between staying on Earth with his girlfriend (who implores him, “What about our relationship?”) or going off to the past (to outer space?) with Miller. Remaining true to his no-bullshit aesthetic, Cox has Otto tell her, “Fuck that,” and heads off to an uncertain destiny as the soundtrack eventually segues to a riff on the famous score from Kubrick’s film.
Repo Man is a clever social satire that attacks consumer culture on a small scale. Many of the characters have brand names like Miller, Bud, and Lite, while all the products in the film are labeled “Beer” and “Food.” Cox twists the whole idea of consumerism on its ear, commenting on how we have all become commodities of one form or another to be bought and sold. On one level, the film is a bizarre comedy with memorable dialogue (hence its cult film status) and a killer soundtrack (the title song performed by Iggy Pop no less), but look a little harder and you will find much more going on under the surface. Many obscure films are often labeled a “cult film,” but this one deserves the label with its eclectic cast, a take-no-prisoners attitude towards social commentary and an unconventional plot structure.