Repo Man March 19, 2021
verybody and everything is burned out in Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984). Its punk-scene hero, 21-year-old Otto (Emilio Estevez), is tired of his monotonous job at the supermarket, so at the beginning of the movie he quits. (When his boss starts railing at him for stacking cans too widely today — a brand of whiny nit-picking we can sense Otto is very familiar with — we can tell this might be the final straw.) Otto is as inflammatory
about his resignation as he can be. He hurls a “fuck you!” at his boss and walks back toward the front exit doors with his middle fingers up; he doesn’t flinch when one of the security guards tries to aim a gun at him. Shortly afterward, Otto’s girlfriend, tired of her “big baby” boyfriend, dumps him; she hardly bats an eye when Otto walks in on her in bed with another man. Showing is sometimes easier than telling. When Otto asks his parents later if they could lend him so money, they confess they’ve given all their savings — including the stash that had been accruing money for him — to a religious organization to which they have now committed themselves. (Otto wouldn’t consider himself religious like they do but he does have a glinty cross necklace dangling from his left ear.) These former hippies are so blown out by life they feel it imperative they give everything they have to what they’re looking at as one last hope.
Eventually Otto starts working for a car-repossession agency. He's mentored by the tenured Bud (a terrific Harry Dean Stanton); “the life of a repo man is always intense,” he offers unconvincingly. More used-up characters roam this dystopian-feeling version of Los Angeles. A recently lobotomized man drives around town in a 1964 Chevy Malibu that has a trunk which, like the deadly suitcases of 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly and 1994’s Kiss Me Deadly-parroting Pulp Fiction, has inners one should avoid inspecting. Open this Chevy trunk like a skeptical cop does at the beginning of Repo Man and you won’t have time to regret it. Whatever is in there disintegrates the trunk’s opener so effectively that all that’ll be left of them when they’re discovered by horrified bystanders later in the day are a couple of stumps. If only the hamstring-to-toe area had a mouth to explain just what happened.
Another character spends most of his time putting out fires that have started in garbage cans. Otto’s love interest, Leila (Olivia Barash), searches and searches for something we suspect she’ll never find. Repo Man appears to take place in a distant future where the government is even more ever-present (anonymous helicopters are always flying and agents lurking). Like everyone else in the movie, they don’t seem to have much of a purpose or passion for anything. Iggy Pop’s title score, evoking the sinisterly crawling guitars of 1957’s Murder By Contract, is propulsive but also doesn’t seem to have a destination — not even a traditional bridge. It just thrums and thrums, sometimes introducing a new note or chord progression, then goes right back to what it knows.
“Do you ever feel like your mind is eroding?” a character asks another at one point. The person being asked doesn’t answer, but I thought after the question was posed that there might not be a character in Repo Man who could confidently say no. There’s a stronger sense than usual that everyone we meet is just passing the time until they eventually die, doing what they can to enliven their daily routines in the meantime. Everybody struggles to so much as noodle through life. Nobody has any hope. The muted Repo Man’s shiniest glimmer of optimism comes about midway through the movie, when it appears — get this — that aliens could be real. This is exciting not because resting one’s eyeballs on one of the big-headed martians seen on a sub-tabloid cover seems that thrilling a prospect but because now it seems there really is a place to which you could escape and really feel like you’ve escaped. Wouldn’t it be nice to not have to work until you die?
Repo Man is a peculiar sci-fi comedy. Most of its humor comes not from anything that’s markedly kooky — there aren’t any obvious exertions of funniness. Its laughs come from how absurdly vigorless and meaningless everything feels. There aren’t many inviting landmarks in this Los Angeles — just lots of streets to drive on, fences to leap over, and vacant factory buildings to dwell. After a surprisingly action-movie-like car chase with Bud in the driver’s seat, Otto can’t stop himself from getting lost in a fit of giggles. This might be the first time since he was a kid where he was moved by something. Did those few thrilling moments remind him that he has feelings other than despondency? No character in Repo Man feels very multi-dimensional; I figure that’s part of the point. We’re to focus on how their shared feelings of estrangement help make them feel slightly fuller when together, though even then connections cannot absolve you of the sense that you’re very little in the grand scheme of it all. We’re charmed during the handful of sequences where Bud and some of his fellow experienced repo men are palling around together. (Cox has a way with warm cross-talk.) They’ve found their people in a world where everything feels disconnected, unable to be hitched to anything. (This is about as sappy as Repo Man gets.)
It’s true that everyone to different degrees feels squished by capitalism and all its accompanying systems; everyone is disposable — though especially so in the film. (All the repo men Otto works with are named after cheap beers — a rudely comical way to call them unspecial.) Repo Man heightens feelings of capitalism-related dejection while also making sure the hot air is being taken out of them — a ploy, maybe, to obscure woe-is-me vulnerabilities. The labels on all the products in a store, for instance, can’t be distinguished from each other; every package is white and the name of the product is stamped in lower-case navy-blue font on the front. A given good’s purpose is uniform across brands — no need to differentiate. The design choice I think pretty decently sums up Cox’s playfulness. The movie effectively captures and smartly critiques the systems that make life miserable and the feelings of alienation that can flare up partially because of them. But none of its observations are presented without self-aware jokiness. It’s like we’re all laughing through the pain hand in hand. That Repo Man’s happy ending could only exist in a movie seems like another one of Cox’s jokes. Life rarely throws you a lifeline so sturdy. A