Alex Cox, “Repo Man” (1984)
Dare I say that with the passage of time, this little cult science fiction comedy thriller film will come to be seen as one of the few good films defining Western culture and society of the 1980s? “Repo Man” is set in southern California during the early years of the Reagan government and in its own unassuming way details the beginnings of the downfall of American capitalist society and the values it holds dear. Otto Parts (Emilio Estevez) is a disaffected teenager whose ex-hippie parents are in thrall to TV evangelist religion and who spends his time working in a dead-end job at the local supermarket or hanging out with local street punks. On learning that his parents have donated their hard-earned cash to the TV evangelist host instead of keeping it for his trip to Europe, Otto wanders the streets in despair and meets Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), who offers him money to repossess a car. Initially Otto is disgusted by the idea of repossessing the cars of people who can’t afford to pay off the debts they owe on their vehicles, but the cash payment he gets for doing the job for Bud quickly changes his mind and soon he is employed by Bud’s employer, the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation. Bud ensures that Otto learns the Tao of Repo Men and sure enough Otto acquires a work ethic he would never have come by in a mainstream job. Through his job, Otto is introduced to an eccentric assortment of repo folks at his own workplace, to a rival bunch of repo men, the Rodriguez brothers (Del Zamora and Eddie Velez), and various other bizarre larger-than-life characters.
While working diligently repossessing cars, Otto meets a girl Leila (Olivia Barash) who tells him there is an old Ford Malibu car being driven by a lobotomised nuclear physicist and which has the radioactive bodies of four extraterrestrial aliens in the trunk. A reward is being offered for the return of the car and Otto, the Rodriguez duo, Leila and a duo of blond-haired secret agents are all hot on the trail of the car. It seems inevitable that the car finds Otto before Otto finds the car but he is soon surrounded by sinister others who are all intent on the secrets that the car’s trunk carries …
The film has a bleached-out look that captures something of the nauseous spirit that lay in the underbelly of LA pop culture of the 1980s. The working-class culture of the period is portrayed as vacuous and zonked out on drugs, religion, music and other addictions offered by American consumerist society. The mood throughout the film changes from anger at first, that ordinary Americans living in capitalist society are caught in a loop in which they are encouraged and urged to own things they can ill afford and are then preyed on by repossession agents who forcibly take their cars and enjoy the high life of drugs, hot-wiring cars and sex on the money they earn; to empathy and compassion for the repossession folks who band together regardless of individual rivalries when they are threatened by a sinister and greater force than themselves. There are running gags and sub-plots, one of which involves Otto’s friend from his street punk days, throughout the film that complete its distinctive look and illustrate the surreal world Otto lives in.
While the inventive plot itself is as hokey as plots come, “Repo Man” scores high for its inspired casting of Emilio Estevez as Otto the wayward punk kid and Harry Dean Stanton the wizened veteran who becomes Otto’s surrogate dad and teaches him how to live life to the full. Repo work is hard and tough due to the nature of the job and its working conditions, and the people Otto and Bud meet or are forced to confront. Estevez does his best acting here, hands down, and Stanton … well, Stanton doesn’t so much act as just be himself: hard-bitten, cynical, world-weary and accommodating, his presence gives the film a particular flavour and appropriate distance from the culture and society it satirises. The other actors in the film often improvise their lines – one scene featuring the actor Sy Richardson, in which his character and Otto are caught in gunfire, is prominent in this respect – and their quirky and idiosyncratic characters, far removed from the manipulated sheen and glamour of Hollywood and mainstream society, add piquant distinction to the movie.
The plot can often be a puzzle, stretched out a little too much by various sub-plots, but offers a glorious if very critical conclusion (and one sending up the consumerist life-style and its values) in which Otto learns that the ultimate reward of being a repo man really is intense, as Bud advised it would be. Even here though there is a sting in the conclusion, uplifting though it might be: it suggests that, taken to its extreme, the Western dream for most people ultimately results in nihilism.