in Criterion Month

Repo Man (1984)

I’m not sure if it was the right call or not to review Repo Man after a weekend screening of Sorry To Bother You. Yes, they do make for a good double feature, considering they both have a kind of anti-capitalist bent, both are about shitty jobs, and both go unexpectedly sci-fi in their finales. But at the same time, Sorry To Bother You seems to really go for it, even more than Repo Man does in terms of its immediacy, audacity, and biting humor. Repo Man on the other hand, seems a bit restrained by comparison, which is probably not a description that’s ever been ascribed to this film. But nonetheless, taken on its own, it’s a very enjoyable little slice of ’80s weirdness that manages to buck the blandness of the decade’s typical studio films.

The film opens on a 1964 Chevy Mustang driving across the Mojave Dessert being followed by a police car. The weirdo driving the car pulls over, and talks to the police officer who asks to search the guy’s trunk. Then what do you know, he opens the trunk (which is glowing) and then gets turned into a skeleton man before completely vaporizing into nothing but a pair of boots. Elsewhere, we cut to a young punk named Otto (Emilio Estevez), who needs a job after quitting his supermarket job. A job then falls quickly into his lap, as he meets a driver named Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), who randomly asks Otto to drive a car to a repossession company.

Otto is reluctant at first, but after realizing his prospects aren’t exactly the greatest, he decides to start working for the same repo company as Bud. Soon after, he falls in with the other repo men, taking people’s cars (pretty much always without any sort of warning), and just generally getting into the kind of hijinks that this entails. As Harry Dean Stanton monologues at one point, some people spend their whole lives avoiding conflict, while repo men embrace it. The main conflict that Otto eventually embraces is trying to snatch the Chevy Malibu from earlier, which is prized at a hefty $20,000, while there are also rumors that it may or may not have some sort of UFO connection to it.

Obviously, that last detail is a vital part of this movie’s oddness, and becomes an even bigger part of Repo Man as the film progresses. But there are a lot of other little off-kilter touches to Repo Man. Like the fact that all of the products in the entire movie have this bland white label, with even blander descriptions, such as a can of beer just being labeled “BEER”, or a can of food reading “FOOD”. Or the fact that there’s a lady who just randomly has a metal hand for some reason. I suppose I wish there had been a few more of these absurdist touches, but as is, they do a good job of capturing the movie’s somewhat specific worldview.

And that worldview mainly seems to be specific to that of the punk rocker, especially the kind of punk that would feel right at home in the film’s Southern California setting. Obviously, the early ’80s were the height of the L.A. punk scene, and it’s equally strange and awesome that there was a film released by a major studio that tapped into the feeling of that decidedly underground subculture. Otto seems to embody the kind of surburban white boy rage that hardcore punk embodied, while the movie also seems to accept that this rage could pretty easily be sated by driving around and drinkin’ a couple of brews.

I think it also taps a bit (particularly in its early scenes) into the idea of how punk ideals clash so vehemently against American consumerism, and the idea that every punk must surely grow up at some point and get a job. But for the most part, Repo Man just aims to have a fun time reveling in its hazy L.A. setting, while giving Harry Dean Stanton plenty of room to wax poetic, seeing as the legendary character actor was only given so many roles of this prominence. And well, it’s hard not to like that ending. It’s the kind of thing that may seem a bit out of left field. But then again, so is most of the film, likely because it didn’t have to answer to “the man” keeping it down.