By Brandon Konecny.
As a child of the nineties, I narrowly evaded much of the cultural sterility of the preceding decade. Sure, we had the unfortunate instances of the “Macarena” and Yugoslav Wars (as well as the profound ineffectiveness of the industrial world to respond appropriately); but after watching Alex Cox’s cult classic Repo Man, I cannot help but think that I should perhaps take them in stride. Cold War anxiety, conspiratorial fervor, crooked televangelists, and supply-side economic theory never figured into my upbringing. But these are the very things that constitute the bizarre diegetic world of Cox’s no-holds-barred satire. It is one of those works whose style is so singular, so “itself,” that it seems to alter your mood, lasting even after the film’s conclusion. And what is particularly refreshing is that, even though it has been twenty-nine years since the film’s release, its lasting impact has not gone away; the cult classic is still just as strange and pugnacious as ever.
The film commences with J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris), a lobotomized government scientist, who careens down an expansive New Mexican highway in a 1964 Chevy Malibu. A state trooper pulls him over for speeding and, suspicious of his spaced-out behavior, demands to have a look at what is inside his trunk. Upon doing so, the trooper finds something more than he could have ever expected, which leaves him nothing more than a smoldering pair of boots.
Now in Los Angeles, the film turns its attention to Otto (Emilio Estevez), an LA punker who loses both his dead-end job and unfaithful girlfriend. He seems doomed to the psychogeography of LA, wherein “Beer-brand” beer and “Food-brand” food line convenience store shelves, its habitants obsess over New Age spirituality, and piles of trash lay on every corner, lending it to be more appropriately likened to a suffocating wasteland than a city.
Just as his existence as a low-expectation suburbanite seems to be affirmed, his pick-me-up arrives in the form of an eccentric, foulmouthed auto repossessor named Bud (Harry Dean Stanton). Spotting Otto walking alone, Bud offers him money to drive his pregnant wife’s car out of a “bad area.” He reticently agrees and, as he begins to drive off, angry people chase him down the street, desperately latching onto the vehicle whenever possible. Moments later, Otto learns that he has been the victim of a clever ruse and that Bud is actually a repo man. Impressed with his performance and coolly defiant attitude, Bud offers him a job at the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation. Otto is initially hostile towards the idea, but his mind is quickly swayed when one of Bud’s coworkers hands him cash for his work.
Soon enough, he is fully entrenched in the auto repossession business, pulling off dangerous jobs throughout Los Angeles under Bud’s tutelage. But two peculiar occurrences reveal that Otto’s outrageous activities do not exist inside a vacuum: The CIA puts out a $20,000 reward for bringing in the aforesaid Chevy Malibu, making it a hot score for every repo man in the entire city; and their agents ardently chase Leila (Olivia Barash), an outspoken woman who knows about the Malibu’s contents and possesses photographs of what she claims to be dead alien bodies. And, as luck seems to have it in narrative cinema, Otto finds himself at the intersection of both of these situations, pursued by all interested parties, which takes him on an adventure beyond that expected of any ordinary eighteen-year-old punk rocker.
It is difficult to pin down what gives Cox’s film its allure. No matter how hard I have tried, it seems to perpetually defy any kind of stringent categorization, slipping through my fingers the moment I think I have found an appropriate one. This is largely because it is a most peculiar postmodern hodgepodge, consisting of science fiction, government conspiracy, Cold War pessimism, dark comedy, and hardcore punk. And what is more, it is unlike any of its contemporaneous studio counterparts, who either celebrate teenage vitality or bemoan the romantic confusion of adolescence. Repo Man thus standsas something unique, something entirely out of left field. It is unconcerned with the generic conventions of its day, and intentionally stretches itself thin, as it were, so as to set its sights on a multitude of targets. From communists to Christian hypocrites, cops to New Age quacks, ex-hippies to “square” store managers, drunkards to punkers, all are fair game for Cox’s satirical chopping block, allowing him to illuminate the comicality and vulgar underside of Reagan’s America.
The film, taken in all is eccentricity, offers a unique cinematic experience, providing us with a conception of the decade far from that of VH1’s I Love the ‘80s. We see an America—Cox’s American, more specifically—where objects and people are increasingly homogenized and anonymity becomes standard practice, and the only people that hold any sense of individuality are its undesirables—the repo men, conspiracy theorists, and kids from the local punk scene. Unlike so many Hollywood films, it does not necessarily leave us with a single uplifting message but, instead, offers a portal to a carnivalesque universe in which all reverence to social order is suspended. Nothing is scared there, and perhaps it is this ruthlessness, this take-no-prisoners mentality, that gives Repo Man its odd magic. It may not offer a coherent solution or call to action regarding its contentions with the decade, but the film has a pronounced anarchic energy, screaming at the top of its lungs, “Hey, everything and everyone sucks! And who cares!”
Brandon Konecny is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Repo Man was released by the Criterion Collection on Blu-Ray on April 16th, 2013.