There’s no tried and true pattern for what makes a “cult” classic film. You can’t really make a movie thinking it’s going to be one, otherwise it’ll likely end up garbage. It’s an after-the-fact kind of thing; you know what you’ve got once you’re watching it. This is how I would describe Alex Cox’s debut film, 1984’s Repo Man, a movie that’s so completely affixed to the time and place in which it was made, and the feelings and attitudes of then, that without context, I don’t know if it would be any good. It’s also just plain weird and has this thoughline of aliens and neutron bombs and CIA people. Truth be told, I don’t think there’s any movie out there quite like Repo Man.
Cox was an English kid who came to Los Angeles to make a movie, and he eventually got a pair of producers who got what he was trying to do, and then, of all people, Monkee and heir to the Liquid Paper fortune, Michael Nesmith, became the film’s executive producer and things got cooking. Repo Man would be one of the first films to really display the punk lifestyle and attitude without being a movie about the movement. It feels more genuine because it’s just a part of the landscape. It features a soundtrack full of music by punk icons like the Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, and even punk godfather Iggy Pop who contributes the film’s title track. It’s a movie that takes an uncynical look at a profoundly cynical world and works gorgeously.
The movie takes place in L.A., of course, and has Emilio Estevez as Otto Maddox, a young punk who works a crappy job at supermarket and gets fired for talking back. His friends are all thieves and burnouts who just mosh in empty parking lots. One day, a guy in a shabby suit (Harry Dean Stanton) asks Otto if he’d like to make some quick cash getting his old lady’s car out of this bad neighborhood. Otto agrees and breaks into a car and quickly follows the man away. Except, it wasn’t his old lady’s at all; it was being repossessed and the owners come running out angrily. Otto laughs at the absurdity of it all. He doesn’t want to become a repo man, though, even after the man, named Bud, offers him a job.
However, once it becomes clear he’s got no other source for money (his hippie parents gave his finishing school money to a crooked televangelist), Otto decides to become a repo man. Bud is a man for whom the job is everything and he lives by a very specific, almost cowboy-like code, which he spouts off at various points in the film. Bud’s constantly saying things that apply to him but that he makes apply to all repo men. “Repo man’s got all night. Every night!” “A repo man spends his life getting into tense situations.” “Only an asshole gets killed for a car, kid.”
Otto spends his time repossessing cars and learning from Bud and the other repo men, like Lite (Sy Richardson) who is pretty much a murderer, and Miller (Tracey Walters) who is a space cadet who doesn’t know how to drive.
While this is going on, there’s a subplot involving a man named Dr. J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris) who is driving a 1964 Chevy Malibu. He’s got sunglasses with one of the lenses missing. At the beginning of the film, he gets pulled over by a highway patrol officer in the desert. The cop pops the trunk and gets vaporized by a bright, white light. Later, Otto meets a girl named Leila (Olivia Barash) who shows him pictures of aliens (which really just look like weird super-microscope images) and says they’re in the back of a Malibu. Everybody’s looking for this car, including the CIA. The repo men get a report that the car is wanted for $20,000 and it puts all of them on high alert, but also their arch rivals, the Rodriguez Brothers. Aaaaand, as if that weren’t enough, the Malibu gets jacked by Otto’s punk friends, led by Duke (Dick Rude), who are too stupid not to look in the back.
Repo Man is an immensely funny movie. It’s a satire about consumerism, about lost and disaffected youths, and about the constant search for meaning in humdrum lives. Though Los Angeles is an incredibly populous city, Cox shoots it like it’s a ghost town, a near-empty wasteland. Which is, of course, perfect for the story at hand. Everybody in the movie talks about their own personal philosophies and why the world is so messed up. Stanton’s character is constantly saying nothing matters except the code, and yet he gets angry about all sorts of other, seemingly unimportant things (he also hates both Communists and Christians with equal fervor). Otto, despite being a punk and anti-establishment, is really just a white suburbanite who doesn’t know what to do with himself, just like everybody else in the world. He sees repo-ing as a fun diversion, a way to make quick money, and access to drugs and women.
Eventually, the “world” of the movie starts to break down and the hunt for this great-whatsit of a car ends up getting people killed. The CIA surround the car which begins glowing green and is too irradiated to for anyone to approach. Anyone except Miller, the simpleton, though. He gets in, and Otto follows him. Then the car takes off and flies around the Los Angeles skyline at night. Otto chuckles and says “This is intense,” only for Miller to calmly respond, “The life of a repo man is always intense.”
Repo Man is a breath of fresh air, even today, 31 years after its initial release. It definitely feels tied to the place in time, but it’s not dated. The sensibilities of the punk lifestyle and cynicism around authority are still very much a part of us today, and people will never feel like they know exactly what to do with their lives.
Maybe we’re all waiting for some green, pulsating Chevy Malibu to take us somewhere else, too.