Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984)

A curious incident occurs in the Mojave Desert when a policeman pulls over a 1964 Chevrolet Malibu. The driver is one J. Frank Parnell. When the policeman decides to examine the trunk, he is immediately vaporized by an unknown force, leaving only his shoes behind. Meanwhile, a punk rocker named Otto Maddox is fired from his supermarket job. Without a dollar to his name, he wanders the streets until an older man named Bud drives up to him. He offers Otto $25 to drive a car out of the neighborhood.

Otto ultimately decides to take Bud up on his offer, and drives the car to an office. It is there, he discovers, to his horror, that he helped repossessed the car. He wants nothing more to do with Bud or his cohorts and leaves them. However, he later learns his parents donated all of the money they promised him when he finished school to an untrustworthy televangelist. Realizing that his choices are limited, he decides to become a full-time repo man.

This sequence of events could be seen as a changing of the guard. Otto’s parents are ex-hippies – the counterculture that preceded the punks. It was a culture that promoted peace, love, and equality. This made things fairly awkward when they entered their thirties and forties; many of the people extoling progressive values ended up voting for a highly conservative government. This is expressed in the film wherein Otto’s parents seem slavishly devoted to an obviously crooked man simply because he told them to trust him. It’s enough to infer that some people joined the hippie movement for the sole purpose of reaping its various short-term benefits. With the punk rock movement in full swing by 1984, these rockers voice their frustrations to a group that considers them a minor threat.

Although this sounds like a sobering assessment, the beauty of Repo Man is that these elements are in the background. They’re there for people actively seeking them out, but they don’t intrude on the narrative. This is to Alex Cox’s credit because in terms of tone, his film is openly and unabashedly goofy. Just the premise itself is silly, being about a group of people who legally steal cars from unsuspecting owners. The wackiness seems to reach full peak when the Circle Jerks appear as themselves, singing smooth, lounge versions of their songs.

This is a film that truly knows the ins and outs of the punk subculture. Not only is the soundtrack fantastic, being made up of greatest songs from contemporary Los Angeles-based punk bands, the characters are very much cast from the mold of their fans. This is especially evident in the character of Duke. His character is established early on when Otto loses his girlfriend to him. After that point, he tries to act like a hardened criminal, but even after shooting a few people, his criminal aspirations are limited to eating sushi without paying. When a robbery goes wrong near the end of the film, he tries to blame society before Otto bluntly points out that he hails from a suburban family just like him. It doesn’t make the pain any less real, though.

In addition to its covert satirical elements, Repo Man could also be read as a slice-of-life film given that it really doesn’t have a central plot to speak of. Although it doesn’t even pretend to give viewers a realistic insight to the life of a repo man, the narrative primarily revolves around Otto and his coworkers doing their job. There’s even a token romance story wherein Otto hooks up with a woman named Leila.

Despite, or perhaps even because of, its mundane premise, the plot gets fairly surreal at points. The CIA is wandering around the streets of Los Angeles in search of missing aliens. Although this sounds completely absurd, the opening scene does signpost to viewers that something strange is going on. This is how Repo Man can claim to be a science fiction piece despite featuring elements thereof for less than a tenth of its runtime. Things take a turn for the somewhat serious when Leila joins the CIA and proceeds to help torture information out of Otto.

As a fitting end for this odyssey, Miller, an eccentric mechanic who alluded to the existence of aliens earlier in the film approaches the Malibu the CIA had been looking for – which is now glowing green. He gets into the car and invites Otto to join him on a wild journey through time. Leila asks about their relationship, but Otto throws it in her face and takes Miller up on his offer. This development could be seen as a humorous parody of the final scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, though in an ironic twist, I would argue it works much better in Repo Man. This is because Otto really doesn’t have much he cares for to leave behind, so going on a time-transcending journey in a flying car would be a significant improvement. Plus, it’s downright hilarious watching Leila try to dissuade Otto when, as a result of her own actions, she doesn’t hold any cards. It’s an appropriately strange ending for an equally – if not more so – strange film.

The first half of the 1970s popular music scene was dominated by progressive rock musicians. Taking the blueprint laid out by their psychedelic predecessors, progressive rockers would attempt to incorporate older styles into their music. They included baroque, opera, and classic elements, composing suites that often took up an entire side of an LP. Although many classic albums and artists spawned from the progressive rock movement, it was eventually seen as overly self-indulgent and pretentious. In order to remain relevant, rock had to do something drastic.

The answer arrived in the form of the Ramones’ eponymous debut album in 1976. While progressive rock bands would regularly compose long songs with multiple movements, the Ramones’ debut had a brisk pace, giving their audience fourteen songs in twenty-nine minutes. And so began the punk rock movement. These musicians blasted away all of pretentiousness of progressive rock and celebrated a minimalistic approach with simplistic production and to-the-point lyrics that took shots at contemporary sensibilities. Successfully channeling this energy, Repo Man paints an interesting portrait of its time period – one that is certainly worth experiencing for the soundtrack alone.

Final Score: 8/10

2 thoughts on “Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984)

  1. I haven’t seen Repo Man, but it’s one of those movies I know I’d like if I did. It’s on my way-too-long list to watch.

    And as much as I love my old prog heroes like Yes, ELP, and Genesis, I get where the punks were coming from in blasting that stuff off of the main stage. In my opinion, the best prog bands were either done making really great music in that movement by the late 70s, or they’d already left the classical and opera-influenced stuff behind like King Crimson (I’d say Crimson’s mid-70s stuff like Larks’ Tongues/Starless/Red seems like it was already a reaction against the movement they helped start, but maybe that’s just me. Maybe that was just Robert Fripp doing whatever he felt like as usual.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • I too like those prog bands (King Crimson especially), but there’s no question that punk did popular music a solid by blasting things back to square one. I like to think something similar happened with independent gaming; the first few artists such as Jonathan Blow and Phil Fish tried to go for that nebulous high-art standard whereas later artists made games that had no problem being games. Indeed, the independent scene as it is now barely shows any influence from those two, and I feel it is better off for it.

      Liked by 2 people

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