Probably the smallest budget, oddest film on the list, Repo Man is one of those gems of a film that succeeds because of the strength of its ideas and its commitment to presenting them without worrying about audience figures. If you haven’t seen it then track down a copy, sit down and watch it unfold before you, then watch it again to make sure that yes, it does all fit together in its own twisted logic way. Like Scarface, Repo Man is a product of its time, although its view on consumerism and Reagan’s foreign policy couldn’t be more different, Repo Man is as critical in its own way, but doesn’t let those views get in the way of entertainment. Despite the collection of lowlifes that form the cast, there’s something distinctly loveable about them.
Like many films that look at specifics of a culture, it’s directed by someone from outside of that culture. Alex Cox was a Brit who’d moved to America in an attempt to break into film and this was his first, a bizarre, science fiction themed caper movie set in the world of car repossession, except it isn’t, it’s set in the world of alien abduction conspiracies, except…you get the idea, it’s not an easy film to pin down. The studio (which changed ownership halfway through production) balked at the result, trying to hide it in dive theatres, but somehow it took on a life of its own. Repo Man belongs in those sorts of cinema, it’s a throwback to the midnight circuit, none mainstreams in its sensibilities and presentation, not aimed at the multiplex crowd. It’s the sort of film that once you’ve seen you don’t forget, not because of its blistering quality – it’s fair to say it’s not the best film ever made –but because it sticks to its principals so firmly. Cox later became better known for presenting Moviedrome on TV, the sort of late night film slot that showed oddities like this and apart from Walker, his other films never quite felt as finished as this, as complete in their own, odd way.
At the heart of it is the weird relationship between Otto and Bud, played by Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton respectively. Neither particularly likes or trusts the other, but somewhere along the line they end up involved in a plot to smuggle an alien body out of the country. The interesting thing is the film does away with the natural order of things in that neither character grows during the course of the film, Otto remains bored and feckless throughout and Bud, well…he remains Harry Dean Stanton. It’s the sort of performance that’s impossible to separate from the actor and leads you to ask the question, was Harry Dean Stanton ever young? Here he’s as happy giving out advice on the use of drugs, religion (“No Christians either!”) and more often than not, the government. He’s a likeable character precisely because he falls so firmly into the grumpy old man category, we get the feeling that somewhere deep inside him there’s a decent man trying to get out, but that corporate America has gotten hold of him and turned him into a shade of his former self. Obviously, Bud at one stage was Otto.
The rest of the cast is made up of familiar faces from dozens of low budget genre offerings and TV specials, although that works in its favour, at its heart Repo Man is one of those quirky little films that just happen to have something to say amid all of the craziness. The digs at product placement (everything is generically labelled as coffee, beer etc., apart from the cars all of which are individual, beaten up models – the labelling came because they couldn’t get the rights to use specific brands), alien folklore (the bizarre televangelist advertises his course of “Enrolment on the Chariots of the Gods”, the Men In Black that appear to be everywhere but are largely ineffectual at keeping things under wraps) all feel clever, but more importantly, not out of place. It’s all done with a lightness of touch that doesn’t get in the way of the black comedy of the rest of the film, like all the best satire it’s both subtle and in your face. If anything, the TV version of the film is even better (although sadly unavailable), satirising the use of dubbing to remove bad language with such classics as “Let’s go get those Melon Farmers” that actually draw attention to the bad language rather than glossing over it. Special mention must also be made of Tracey Walter as Miller, the seemingly permanently stoned mechanic who just may just know more about what’s going on than anyone else in the film, especially when it comes to air fresheners.
It’s also worth giving a mention to its soundtrack, not the collection of now classic punk tracks (something that in many ways saved the film from disappearing completely at the time of its release), but Tito Larriva’s bizarre Ry Cooder-esque score that syncs perfectly alongside the action. Not only does it reflect perfectly the racial divides of the film, but somehow it seems perfectly in keeping with the mad-cap cartoon antics & chases that the film comprises of, the sort of Looney Tunes derived chase music. Repo Man has the feeling of a pulp seventies comic, a cult oddity found at the back of second hand stores, something you unearth on late night TV at the end of a long day.
Repo Man isn’t a profound film, it probably wasn’t even the best film released that year (although the only other two films from the year that competed for space on the list were Paris, Texas and Once Upon A Time In America, both of which I have serious problems with) but it is one of the most enjoyable ones and sometimes that’s all that matters. Just remember, “Life for a Repo Man is always intense…”