REPO MAN (1984)

  • Director: Alex Cox
  • Writer: Alex Cox
  • Starring: Emilio Estevez, Harry Dean Stanton, Tracey Walter, Olivia Barash, Sy Richardson, Vonetta McGee, Susan Barnes, and Fox Harris
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

So, I watched this movie, but I’m not 100% on what actually happened in it, or how the various characters even relate to each other, or what, thematically, it’s actually about. Various sources I’ve found describe it as a “Science Fiction black comedy” or as a “satire of the Reagan administration, consumerism, and the atomic age,” or a “punk rock musical” (which… seems false?), or as “a kind of hinge between Taxi Driver and Pulp Fiction.” The plot, as I understood it, involved a punk rocker named Otto (Emilio Estevez) who becomes a “Repo Man” in Los Angeles against his better judgment, then somehow gets sucked into some sort of conspiracy that may involve an alien invasion, or maybe a rogue neutron bomb, or maybe a televangelist?

But Repo Man’s weirdness extends well beyond the vagaries of its plot. Famously, every foodstuff or drink in the movie is in completely generic packing, reading just “Beer” or “Drink” or “Corn Flakes.” At one point Otto eats beans from a can in his parents’ kitchen, a can that’s just marked “Food.” One fellow repossessor (Tracey Walter) opines at length about “the cosmic unconsciousness.” Every two-bit convenience store is being robbed all the time in this world. After one seemingly random shootout, Otto cradles one of the robbers’ heads. His last words: “I know a life of crime has led me to this sorry fate, yet still, I blame society. Society made me what I am.” At the end of the movie, the credits run backwards, seemingly just for the heck of it.

I seriously think Repo Man might be a short-lister for the weirdest movie ever made by a major studio. This thing has a Universal logo on the front of it. Director Alex Cox, directly out of UCLA film school, managed to interest former Monkees member Michael Nesmith in producing the movie for some reason, and Nesmith in turn somehow talked Universal Studios into spending a million dollars on whatever this movie is (as they said on my favorite Unspooled podcast, “the modern day equivalent would be Joey Fatone randomly walking into a movie studio and announcing that they should make Midsommar, and the studio just giving him money”). The studio pitched parts in the movie to far-flung figures like Mick Jagger and Muhammad Ali, but none bit. In the end, Universal found themselves hating the final product, and all but refused to release it. By that time, however, the heavily punk rock soundtrack, with a theme song from Iggy Pop, had already been released and become a very niche hit, so eventually the studio gave in and gave the movie a slightly wider release. Another punk band featured on the soundtrack, the Circle Jerks, randomly appear as a lounge act in the movie.

The nugget of what people actually remember about Repo Man tends to be the trunk of the Chevy Malibu for which all the characters end up searching. Whatever’s inside glows green, but we actually never see what’s inside. At least two characters look inside, but are suddenly vaporized, leaving behind only their still-smoking boots. When one police officer expresses disbelief at this, a lady government agent with a metal hand (Susan Barnes) replies, “It happens sometimes, people just explode. Natural causes.” Later, Otto’s prospective love interest, Leila (Olivia Barash) shows him a picture that she says are four dead aliens, which she says are currently in the trunk of the Malibu. Leila works at the United Fruitcake Organization, whose initials do not seem to be a coincidence.

But in another scene, Otto goes for a ride in the Malibu itself, driven by a sweaty weirdo wearing an eye patch (Fox Harris, whose filmography includes titles like Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and Mutant on the Bounty). Once he gets in, the guy immediately asks, “Do you ever feel like your mind is corroding?” (“Um… no.”) He gives a long spiel about his own involvement in the invention of the Neutron Bomb, designed to destroy organic life while leaving cities intact for invading forces. This is a real thing, by the way, which Ronald Reagan actually wanted to build hundreds of. Anyway, the guy then suddenly dies of radiation poisoning, leaving neither Otto nor the audience any the wiser. So are there aliens in the trunk? A bomb? Neither of these theories would explain the climactic scene, when the entire car starts glowing green and emitting a forcefield keeping everyone away. Except for Otto, who flies away in it to outer space. Just before he leaves, Leila whines, “But what about our relationship?” Otto seems to consider this and then replies, “Fuck that,” and leaves in his glowing Chevy slash spaceship. In fact, the mysterious car trunk was likely inspired by the bizarre 1955 film noir Kiss Me Deadly, which featured an infamous suitcase, which we never see inside, that glows and sets people on fire when it’s opened (an effect also said to have directly inspired the melting Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark). Repo Man may have, in turn, inspired the famous glowing suitcase (again with contents never actually revealed) in Pulp Fiction

Repo Man is the sort of very weird movie I normally love. And… I kind of did? But I do come back to those bits where I don’t know who is who, or who is on which side, or who wants what, and I’m not sure what I’m looking at. I keep seeing articles saying it’s a “satire of consumerism,” but in what way exactly? I mean, all the labels that just say “Food” are funny, but I’m left wondering what the punch line is. On the other hand, that’s probably why Repo Man continues to endure, because so many people, like me, have looked at this movie over the years and gone, what is this? Honestly I’d definitely prefer that over just your average movie any day of the week.

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