Sunday, April 8, 2012

Repo Man - 1984

"Repo Man" - 1984
Dir. by Alex Cox - 1 hr. 32 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Repo Man" is a product of its time and environment, in the best possible way.  There's no way this film would be made today, and if it was, it would be a forgettable throw-away.  Instead, it's a low-budget film (calling it indie would be inaccurate, as it was distributed by Universal Pictures) that absolutely nails the early 80s punk Los Angeles, and then throws in some sci-fi elements to keep things interesting.

The movie kicks off with a visibly crazy man being pulled over in the desert by policeman.  Long story short, the cop gets evaporated by whatever's in the trunk of the Chevy Malibu, and the crazy guy drives on.  The main character of the story, Otto (Emilio Estevez), is introduced as he's being fired from his stock-boy job at a grocery store for not paying close enough attention to the spacing of the cans of peaches.  He goes out middle fingers blazing.  At a party after, he finds his girlfriend (I think, it's not particularly well explained) in bed with his friend who has just gotten out of jail (or juvie, probably), and stalks off.  It's not so much that Otto is disappointed; he pretty much thinks that everything around him sucks, and finding the girl he's with with another guy in his spot in bed is just another drop in the bucket.

While Otto is literally kicking a can along the sidewalk, Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) asks him to help him out by driving another car to the hospital, using some dodgy story about his wife being pregnant.  Otto agrees for $25, but they end up at a repo lot.  Otto initially doesn't want anything to do with being a repo man, but ends up as Bud's trainee.  Fortunately, the lessons usually come over drinks, lines of coke, or during car chases with rival repo men, so the whole situation manages to keep Otto's attention.  After some more things have happened, the Chevy Malibu pops up with a $20,000 bounty on it's head, and the focus of the film turns toward getting ahold of this vehicle.

There are several things working in this film's favor.  First, it's a very self-contained universe.  The science-fiction elements are immediately introduced, so there's never one of those "left turn" moments in the film.  You know from the beginning that it's part of the story.  Also, there's a high attention to detail.  Literally everything consumable in the film is packaged with a generic white label: Otto eats out of a can of "food," the characters drink "beer" or "drink," even the cereal in the background of the liquor store is plainly labelled "corn flakes."  It was a common message in punk music of that era that everything was just bland and pointless, even down to the entertainment.  That's expressed through the flair-less packaging of almost everything, the deliberately "square" clothing that Otto adopts on Bud's recommendation, and the almost oppressive lack of joy the characters feel throughout the film.  There's a scene in the film that shows us Otto's family, vapidly staring at their TV set, watching a televangelist do his thing.  But before that, we've seen Otto drinking, and singing his version of this punk classic:

Again, seeing his family like that isn't a surprise.  Pretty much everything sucks, and there's not much surprise left in the world.  But being a repo man means constant excitement, which is the appeal that the job holds for Otto.

For me, one of the biggest reasons that I enjoyed this film (and feel like it would be difficult to do today) is that there isn't a pervasive sense of irony in the portrayal of the characters.  Certainly, some of the characters do things that would undermine their image (particularly with Duke, who tries to come off like a hard criminal, but when prompted to go commit some crimes comes up with the idea of eating sushi and not paying for it), and there's a level of irony to that, but not in how the actors portray the characters.  There aren't any winks to the audience: Otto really is an angry asshole of a kid, but he's focused on whatever he's doing at the time.  Same for everyone else in the film, as well.  The audience isn't supposed to view it as actors wearing costumes without any attachment to the role (a sort of nihilism that undermines humor), the humor comes out of things not going how these characters plan for them to.  Especially in a movie where many of the characters are members of a sub-culture, not taking that seriously would doom the tone of this film.

I really enjoyed "Repo Man."  It's not supposed to be high-brow, intellectual entertainment, it's a punk rock movie with aliens, drugs, and car chases in it.  But it fully embodies what it's trying to be about, and that makes it successful.  That it's really funny is a nice bonus, too.

4 / 5 - Streaming

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