Repo Man, the feature debut of writer-director Alex Cox, is a great punk-rock song wearing a movie suit. It’s harsh, abrupt, funny, political, and fiercely unsentimental. Its milieu is post-punk Los Angeles, where punk bands like the Circle Jerks are reduced to playing hilariously affectless dirge-tunes in shabby clubs — “Can’t believe I used to like these guys,” says Otto (Emilio Estevez), our hero, or what we get resembling a hero. Repo Man isn’t really about punk; like much of Jaime Hernandez’ Love & Rockets stories of the ’80s, it’s about what people from the punk scene do after punk dies. It doesn’t take on punk as a subject the way Cox’s follow-up film, Sid & Nancy, did. It settles for giving the audience what we usually want from punk music; it absolutely nails the tone, the arrogance, the hostility. Repo Man is one of my favorite movies, in case that wasn’t clear.
Otto (a homonym for “auto”) flips off his boss at the grocery store and hits the bricks; at least he tried a job, unlike his ex-girlfriend and former buddies, who skulk around L.A. “doing crimes.” This is part of what happens to punks after punk — crap jobs or theft. Otto stumbles into the business of repossessing cars: repo man Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) randomly scouts him for the gig, and if Harry Dean Stanton, born in 1926 and pushing sixty at the time Repo Man was made, isn’t a bona fide punk icon regardless of his generation, I don’t know punk. The perpetually angry, foul-mouthed Bud is the perfect mentor for a baby nihilist like Otto, and Otto starts getting good at the job. Alex Cox doesn’t get pious about the realities of car repossession and how it targets the poor and nonwhite: he trusts us to pick up on that ourselves (and some of the repo men, like the legendary Rodriguez Brothers, are also nonwhite).
Anyway, Repo Man isn’t about the job. There is a subplot dealing with a lobotomized nuclear scientist (sweaty Fox Harris) driving a ’64 Chevy Malibu around, with something mysterious glowing in the trunk. As with the similar briefcases in Kiss Me Deadly and Pulp Fiction, we never find out what’s in the trunk and how it vaporizes people. We figure it involves aliens, though, because some agents are looking for the Malibu. The repo men are, too, once a $20,000 bounty is put on the car’s head. Or hood. Repo Man is full of wry, side-of-the-mouth commentary on codes of belief: Bud’s repo-man code, or the book Dioretix (a slap at Scientology years before most people knew about it), which people keep passing around, or the cosmic phenomenology outlined by Miller (Tracey Walter). I don’t think Cox means us to take the quietly daffy Miller any more seriously than anyone else in the film, but he sure is fun to listen to.
This is a low-budget movie, so although there’s some action — shoot-outs, car chases (including one in L.A.’s drainage canal where the cars racing through puddles in the sunshine create rainbows) — the bulk of it is two guys talking, usually in cars. Repo Man can thus be added to the multitude of films that informed Quentin Tarantino’s work, though it has its own derivative moments. The score by Tito Larriva and Steven Hufsteter, for instance, veers between Chicano surf music and ominous John Carpenter chords. Robby Müller’s cinematography, too, echoes early Carpenter films, although instead of the blue-on-black scheme favored by Carpenter’s DP Dean Cundey, we get green-on-black.
Miller thinks that alien spaceships are time machines, and so is Repo Man, in a way; it takes us right back to the Reagan years, when we were afraid (or were made afraid) of the Russians nuking us. So we get a bit of rhetoric that fits the times (“I don’t want no commies in my car,” growls Bud, “and no Christians either”) and a good deal of paranoia about glowing stuff. Most of the people in the movie, though, live at an angle to the mainstream. Bud again: “Ordinary fuckin people. I hate ‘em.” Every store in the movie stocks its shelves with generic food products, creating a backdrop for a world without real choice. Yet Repo Man’s scuzzy-nihilistic style is played for deadpan laughs. (My favorite non-Harry Dean Stanton moment has always been the “Society made me what I am” bit.) I get the sense that Alex Cox made it for guys like Otto, and didn’t care if anyone else dug it.