Repo Man (1984) written and directed by Alex Cox
What’s it about?
An old Chevy careens recklessly on a desert highway, causing a patrol cop to pull it over. He asks the driver - a crazy looking old guy wearing sun shades with one lens missing - if he can look in the trunk. However, after he opens it he is reduced to nothing more than a pile of ash and smoking boots.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles we are introduced to Otto (Emilio Estevez), a young punk who, along with best pal Kevin (Zander Schloss), is kicked out of his job stacking supermarket shelves. To make things worse, his girlfriend Debbi (Jennifer Balgobin) has just dumped him at a house party in favour of the even more delinquent Duke (Dick Rude).
The next day, while he is walking home, a middle-aged man named Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) pulls up beside him and asks him a favour: to move his wife’s car out of the rough neighbourhood for $25. Otto does just that - only to discover that the car isn’t Bud’s wife’s after all: he is repossessing it. So begins his new calling in life: that of a repo man.
This kicks off a dangerous round of day-and-night speeding off in repossessed cars, desperately attempting to avoid being either beaten up or shot by their erstwhile owners. Along the way, Otto picks up a new girlfriend named Leila (Olivia Barash) who belongs to a mysterious organisation who are seeking to reveal what is lying in the trunk of the mysterious Chevy to the world. Soon, everyone is after this car: Bud, his rivals the Rodriguez Brothers, the FBI and a trio of robbers led by Duke.
Watch a trailer:
Why is it significant?
Repo Man was the first feature-length film for Alex Cox, a British director who also became well known in the UK for introducing TV screenings of various cult films under the moniker of Moviedrome. It remains the idiosyncratic director’s most famous film and is generally regarded as being one of his best. The executive producer was Michael Nesmith, a former member of the 1960s pop band The Monkees. The film also gave Emilio Estevez his first big-screen starring role.
It very much encapsulates the early 80s US economic troubles and the resulting punk zeitgeist.
Indeed, the soundtrack features various American punk bands from the era (such as Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies and Circle Jerks) as well as Iggy Pop who composed the surf rock title music.
In 2007 Cox made a sequel called Repo Chick which was filmed independently on an extremely low budget with green screen CGI backdrops taking the place of sets. Few people have seen it and those who have had the chance to do so have generally condemned it. If you are curious you may wish to view this trailer before tracking it down, just to get some clue as to what you are letting yourself in for:
How does it hold up?
Akin to the aforementioned punk scene Repo Man is a shamelessly defiant film. We get an on-the-nose look at the 80’s “me first” mentality where televangelists have an unfettered carte blanche to screw over the gullible: Otto’s parents donate money intended for him when he grows up to one such fraudster so as to supposedly “send Bibles to El Salvador”. The products we see in the supermarket in the film are all unbranded, a clear two-fingered salute to product placement. There is a refusal to conform to one genre as the film weaves its way in and out of multi-stranded drama, satire, sci-fi and action. Even the end credits scroll down from the top of the screen as opposed to the usual technique of scrolling upwards.
The defiance is all in service of subverting and deconstructing the myth of America’s success story. Cox deliberately filmed much of Repo Man around run-down areas, laying bare the country’s impoverished underbelly. The repo men themselves are painted up with a mythology of their own, with the action-packed lifestyle and their own code of honour. They are the film’s own cowboys and superheroes, only they don’t fight for the American Way - instead they, conversely, strip America of its own status symbol, the car. Even that most sacred of All American movie icons, John Wayne, is desecrated in a way that would rile up the US’s conservative elements no end: “John Wayne was a fag” proclaims one of the characters.
In a sign of how self-aware the film is, even the punk zeitgeist itself is shown to be no exception to the rules of conformity and social climbing. “Let’s get some sushi and not pay for it” proclaims Duke - sushi being a sought-after food for the aspirational classes.
The cinematography by Robby Müller is superb in its manner of combining a noir influence with some vaguely off-kilter use of colour: an almost perfect synchronicity with Alex Cox’s own distinctive mash-together of genres. Repo Man may be a little too weird for some tastes, in particular the outright “WTF” ending. However, for those who can click into its freewheeling unconventionality, it’s a fun ride.
Runtime: 92 mins
Dir: Alex Cox
Script: Alex Cox
Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, Emilio Estevez, Tracey Walter, Olivia Barash, Sy Richardson, Vonetta McGee, Dick Rude, Zander Schloss, Jennifer Balgobin