Well, for today, I thought that I’d re-watch a film that I’ve been meaning to take another look at for over a decade. I am, of course, talking about Alex Cox’s 1984 film “Repo Man”.
I first found this film on a market stall in either 2006 or 2007 and, knowing literally nothing about it, decided to take a chance on it because it looked interesting. All I can remember about my first viewing of this film was that it was unlike anything else that I’d ever watched before, that I thought that it was “cool” and that I didn’t really understand it. So, with almost a decade and a half of extra maturity and knowledge than I had back then, I wondered if this film would make any more sense to me a second time around.
So, let’s take a look at “Repo Man”. Needless to say, this review will contain some MAJOR SPOILERS. The film itself also contains some FLICKERING IMAGES (although I don’t know whether they’re intense enough to be a problem for some viewers or not).
The film begins with a car speeding along a desert highway somewhere in America. A nearby cop notices and pulls the car over. The sweaty and nervous driver tells the cop that he really doesn’t want to know what is in the boot of the car. Needless to say, the cop instantly becomes suspicious and decides to check it. When he opens the boot, a glowing light engulfs him and reduces him to little more than two smouldering boots. The car then drives off.
We then see a bitter young man called Otto (Emilio Estevez) get fired from his job at a supermarket. When he tries to console himself by visiting a raucous party at his friend’s house, he finds his girlfriend sleeping with another man. Miserable and disillusioned, he wanders off and ends up drinking alone in the middle of a field. The next morning, he is still wandering the streets when a man called Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) parks his car beside him and offers him ten dollars if he will help him.
After some initial misunderstandings and insults, Bud explains that his wife is in labour and he needs someone to help him drive a nearby car to the hospital. After some haggling about the price, Otto agrees and takes the car keys. Whilst getting the car to start, a couple emerge from a nearby house and try to stop him from stealing their car. Otto shrugs and drives off, following Bud to a rather sleazy-looking car impound.
When Otto enters the office, he realises that he’s been tricked into helping Bud repossess a car. Angered by this and not very keen on becoming a repo man, he spills the beer that the repo firm offers him, reluctantly takes the money they give him and storms out of the building. Meanwhile, several government agents investigate the mysterious death in the desert.
Otto soon finds that can’t seem to find any money anywhere else. His parents have given away the money they once promised to give him and almost every job advertised in the paper seems to be very much of the dead-end variety. So, reluctantly, he joins the repo company. Within days, he is wearing a suit, taking copious amounts of speed and revelling in the chaotic nature of the job.
However, after reposessing a sports car and cruising around in it for fun, he ends up giving a lift to a mysterious woman called Leila (Olivia Barash) who tells him that she’s on the run from government agents who are trying to find and cover up the remains of four aliens….
One of the first things that I will say about this film is that, whilst I still don’t fully understand it, it is certainly a unique film that really has to be experienced first-hand. There’s no real way to describe it that really does it justice, but it’s worth a try. I just hope that this review at least makes some sense. Where do I even start?
Despite the sci-fi surrealism of the film’s plot and the wonderfully quirky atmosphere, this is a surprisingly angry film. Many of the characters feel resentful towards the world for one reason or another. When Otto is introduced, we see life dealing him a bad hand – but he’s already shown to be more than a little bit embittered and disillusioned before all of this happens.
In some ways, this is possibly a punk film – with a real undercurrent of cynicism and anger running underneath it. But, whilst the film is certainly critical of authority, capitalism and the establishment (eg: evil government agents, the repo men being presented as little more than legalised car thieves etc…) and also contains some punk music, most of the film’s “punk” characters are a group of amoral criminals whose lives revolve around recreational robbery and serious drug use. They are “anarchists” in the very worst sense of the word – who quite literally treat life like a game of “Grand Theft Auto”.
This film is also possibly a criticism of the “macho” culture of the 1980s too. Otto and many of the other repo men are shown to be swaggering, insecure, homophobic, violent, hard-drinking/drug-fuelled, sleazy (and sometimes aggressive about it!) and almost constantly angry. They are not meant to be sympathetic characters by any stretch of the imagination.
In fact, there are virtually no sympathetic characters in this film. Literally the only vaguely sympathetic character is a drug-addled homeless man who lives at the repo yard and rambles about the universe. But, this is probably part of the film’s satire. It is set in a nightmarishly hyper-intense version of Reagan’s America. In other words, pretty much everyone is heartless, cynical, brusque, violent, bigoted, amoral, angry and/or unprincipled. This links in to the film’s criticism of the economics and culture of the age, with almost everyone in the film being motivated by money, status, pleasure or personal gain of some kind or another.
Yet, when one of Otto’s criminal friends is shot during a robbery, he gives a ridiculously melodramatic dying speech about how society is truly to blame. Otto, on the other hand, disagrees with him. Despite the fact that the characters are clearly shown to be a product of 1980s America on steroids, this small segment adds some intriguing nuance and ambiguity to everything that raises all sorts of questions. Are people a combination of themselves and the society they live in? Is personal responsibility just a political myth used to ignore social problems? Am I reading way too much into this comedic scene?
One other interesting satirical detail is that there is literally no product placement in this film, and the film makes a point of showing you this. Pretty much everything that can be eaten or drunk has plain white packaging with a (usually very generic) product name written on it in bland blue letters. For example, whenever a character drinks a beer, it is literally “Beer”-brand beer. Not only does this lack of branding contrast absolutely perfectly with the greedy “world” of the film but it also points out just how omnipresent things like advertising and branding are.
The film also includes some satire about spirituality and capitalism too. For example, one of the many things that annoys Otto at the beginning of the film is the fact that his stoned parents have given $1000 that they were going to give him to a televangelist instead. A televangelist who is later revealed to be in hock with the film’s mysterious government agents. This is also a film where the stoner-like ramblings of a homeless man who lives at the repo yard actually turn out to have more truth in them than anyone else’s theories about the nature of the universe.
Another interesting thing about this film is how several of the main characters end up turning into the things that they hate the most. Whether it is how Otto goes from being a rebellious, anti-establishment punk who hates even the idea of repo men to becoming an enthusiastic suit-wearing repo man or how Leila goes from being a whistleblower on the run from the government to not only joining the mysterious agency that has been chasing her, but also enthusiastically helping them to “interrogate” Otto too.
So, yes, this film is very much a satire with a lot to say. And, even though this is the second time I’ve seen the film, I’ve probably still missed a lot of subtle details or satirical comments hidden in the film. Either that or the film is just messing with the audience and intentionally makes no sense.
In terms of the actual plot, the film does have one. Sort of. And it is probably a metaphor for something, although I can’t work out what. In short, the film’s story mostly revolves around a car that contains what are implied to be alien remains – which are also radioactive enough to disintegrate anyone who looks at them directly. These alien remains are kept in the boot of a car which constantly keeps getting stolen by different people before, eventually, it starts glowing and allows both Otto and the homeless man at the repo yard to ride it into the cosmos. I’m sure that this is almost certainly a metaphor for something, but I can’t work out what.
Visually and musically, this film is fairly cool and unique. Unlike the coke-fuelled 1980s pop music you’d expect to find in a satirical film like this, the music is instead the kind of “cool” rock and punk music that is also sometimes reminiscent of a dystopian version of the 1960s (which might be another satirical theme in this film?). Likewise, the film sometimes makes brilliantly creative use of lighting and set design in the kind of way that films from the 1980s and 1990s are famous for 🙂
All in all, this review probably hasn’t done this film justice. It’s either an intricately-constructed multi-layered masterpiece of social satire or a giant film-sized practical joke. Or both. There is nothing else quite like this film.
I would say that this is a film that you will either really love or really hate, but – if my reactions to it are anything to go by – your reaction will probably be “WTF?”. But in a good way. Sort of. Even though you probably won’t fully understand this film, watching it is still an incredibly unique experience – fascinating and disturbing in equal measure- that will probably linger in your imagination for quite a while afterwards.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get… Honestly, I really don’t know.