Repo Man (1984)

First published by Little White Lies

Alex Cox is famous, amongst other things, for his love of westerns – and so it seems apt that his debut feature should open with a lone traveler heading west, humming “Oh My Darling Clementine” to himself. Yet J Frank Parnell (Fox Harris) is a mad nuclear scientist driving a ’64 Chevy Malibu, and the mysterious, glowing contents of the car’s trunk have just vaporized a highway cop – all of which suggests that Repo Man is not going to be any ordinary oater. It is an impression later confirmed when characters are seen debating whether cinema’s most celebrated cowboy, John Wayne, was “the greatest American that ever lived”, or a voyeuristic, cross-dressing “fag”, or both.

The identity of Repo Man is just as hard to pin down. For while it is a western of sorts, full of code-following rugged individualists, vengeful posses, and gun-fighting mavericks doing what they have to do, it is also a punk road movie, a conspiratorial cold-war chase caper, a paranoid apocalypse sci-fi, a postmodern mixed “plate o’ shrimp”, a hilarious Eighties satire and a wry lowlife rejoinder to Reagan’s upwardly mobile American dream.

And while it pays subtle homage to films ranging from Kiss Me Deadly to A Clockwork Orange to E.T., and has itself influenced the disparate likes of Pulp FictionNapoleon Dynamite and Southland Tales, it remains entirely sui generis – which is why it seems as fresh and original today as it was in 1984 (the suitably Orwellian year of its release).

Meet Otto (“as in AUTO parts”) Maddox (Emilio Estevez’s finest hour and a half), a recalcitrant highschool dropout and “white suburban punk” in search of something more exciting than the conventional lifestyle of the “ordinary fucking people” that he despises. While his nerdy friend Kevin (Zander Schloss, the model for Napoleon Dynamite) enthusiastically embraces the succession of dead-end McJobs that is his prescribed future, and three other contemporaries turn to a life of drug abuse and cornerstore stick-ups, Otto finds himself accidentally employed by the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation, a shabby outfit that repossesses cars.

Under the professional, philosophical and even spiritual (mis)guidance of new colleagues Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), Miller (Tracey Walter), Lite (Sy Richardson) and Oly (Tom Finnegan) – all named after brands of beer – the initially skeptical Otto discovers that the “always intense” life of a repo man might in fact be his true calling, and his route to the stars.

Soon the Helping Hand crew, as well as rival Mexican repo men the Rodriguez Brothers (Del Zamora, Eddie Velez), goofy UFOlogist Leila (Olivia Barash) and a shadowy group of government agents, are all in hot pursuit of Parnell’s hot Chevy – but the car and its unworldly contents are just a MacGuffin-like vehicle for all manner of oddball excursions and dumbassed diversions into the lesser known corners of ’80s Americana. Here, the bland yuppie conformism of the Reagan era is brought into collision with its down-trodden, disgruntled margins, while picket-fence dreams clash with nuclear nightmares.

It is also deliriously funny, with Cox’s script criss-crossing only the bizarrest byways of the LA map. Easing all this along are wonderfully deadpan performances and the crisp camerawork of Wim Wenders’ and Jim Jarmusch’s favourite cinematographer Robby Müller. Meanwhile the eclectic soundtrack (including the specially written title song by Iggy Pop, and a hilarious ‘lounge’ cover by the Circle Jerks of their own ‘When The Shit Hits the Fan’) is the sole reason the film ever saw the light – a reluctant Universal only agreeing to release the film theatrically when they saw the album sales taking off.

It might have suited Repo Man‘s underground status to have been buried forever, but the film’s absence would have deprived the ’80s of one of its most strident – and stylised – rebel yells. To see it again now – on a new director-approved high-definition master for Blu-ray that disinters its bright colours from their scratchy, murky VHS tomb – is to relive the social alienation of the Reagan era without nostalgia’s usual rose-tinted glasses, while also seeing how little distance we have really travelled down the road since.

After all, as Miller so memorably puts it, “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.”

© Anton Bitel