Repo Man (review)

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Car Go Cult

Kinda cheap-looking and with a quasi-indie, “who gives a shit if we ever make any money” attitude that Miramax and The Blair Witch Project have all but wiped from the face of studio filmmaking, 1984’s Repo Man reminds us that once, not so long ago, weird-ass movies were not verboten in Hollywood. Deadpan humor, throwaway visual jokes, and oblique political and social satire may have doomed this way-cool flick to the neverland of sci-fi cultdom, but it has good company there, like its similarly themed contemporaries The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai and the TV series Max Headroom.
In the wasteland of Southern California, Otto (Emilio Estevez), a self-dubbed “white suburban punk,” takes a job with an automobile repossession company. Initially tricked into repossessing a car by philosophical repo man Bud (Harry Dean Stanton: The Green Mile, A Civil Action), Otto comes to appreciate the “repo code” Bud espouses, and the “intense” life of the repo man. And if nothing else, repoing keeps Otto from the diversions in which his punk-rocker friends indulge: holding up liquor and convenience stores for the fun of it.

But Repo Man isn’t about cars — it’s about freedom versus the brainwashing of consumerism and religion… which is just another kind of consumerism in the world of writer/director Alex Cox. Cox, who would go on to make Sid and Nancy and recently wrote the screenplay for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, loaded his movie with characters under the sway of every imaginable type of creed: Otto’s parents, hypnotized by the dual evils of television and fundamentalist Christianity, who’ve sent all their money to a televangelist who cries that “God wants your money”; a mysterious MIB (and more on that later) who turns to the book Dioretix: The Science of Matter Over Mind for spiritual guidance; the off-kilter mechanic, Miller (Tracey Walter: Erin Brockovich), who talks of “cosmic consciousness” and time machines masquerading as flying saucers. In a kind of reverse product placement, Repo Man is full of consumer items so generic that their labels read simply “FOOD” and “DRINK,” the effect of which is that you become even more aware of how bombarded we are by brand names. Even genuine generic items, like those evergreen air fresheners people hang from their rear-view mirrors, become running jokes throughout the film.

Even Bud, who at first appears to be free of such indoctrination, has merely replaced the propaganda offered by society at large with his own version of it. “Ordinary fuckin’ people,” says Bud. “I hate ’em.” But how different is his “repo code” — which involves not harming any car or through inaction allowing one to come to harm — from, say, the Ten Commandments or the concept of karma? The automobile is a sacred vehicle to Bud… just as the body is a sacred vehicle for the soul in Christianity, or for an alien being in Dianetics, which Dioretix is so obviously parodying.

Oh, and what’s this? An alien being in a vehicle? Chugging and swerving through Repo Man is a 1964 Chevy Malibu, driven by the (fictional) inventor of the neutron bomb, J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris). The Malibu’s trunk contains, yup, four glowing alien bodies he stole from Los Alamos, which vaporize anyone who looks at them… kinda like the damage a neutron bomb does. Parnell, who’s haunted by his work on the most immoral weapon imaginable, one that destroys life while leaving property intact for the victors — could those destructive, dead alien bodies represent his soul?

So the Malibu — a sacred object? — is hunted by a UFO nut named Leila (Olivia Barash); mysterious, dark-suited government types led by Agent Rogersz (Susan Barnes: Where the Money Is, Speed 2: Cruise Control), far presaging the federal chic of The X-Files; and not only Bud and Otto but rival repo men, thanks to the $20,000 bounty the feds have placed on the car. And Cox’s ultimate irony is that when it comes down to the end, when some action is there to be taken, it’s Otto, the slacker with no obvious belief system (he never really buys into Bud’s repo code), who’s the one to take advantage of what the Malibu has to offer — I won’t reveal what that is, so as not to spoil it for you.

Otto’s name is not just a phonetic joke — there’s no separation between his “soul” or “being” and its container. Otto is his own auto, not something else driving a vehicle. It’s no coincidence that he takes off in the end with Miller, who’d previously told Otto that “the more you drive, the less intelligent you are.” We don’t drive… we just are, and the characters who are “driven” are the ones who find themselves rooted in inaction when what seems like their ideal opportunity presents itself.

Boy, no wonder Repo Man has limited appeal. Still, we fans get the satisfaction of being members of an exclusive club. Ordinary fuckin’ people might not get Repo Man, but we do.

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