I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to get when I started watching Alex Cox’s 1984 film, Repo Man. And, having watched the movie, I’m still not exactly sure just what I got. The movie, often regarded as a cult classic, is definitely a film which carves out its own unique little corner of the cinematic universe, bearing no strong resemblance to any other film, or really any particular genre.
The repo man of the title is Otto, a young man who has just been fired for insubordination from his job stocking groceries. Otto is played by Emilio Estevez, and Estevez turns in a role that is, as with many of his characters, something of an everyman and something of an oddball, and alternating between an easy laid-back nature and sudden bursts of intensity. Otto is a suburban punk, just slightly more clean-cut than his friends (who sometimes go out and commit robberies), and he has a big chip on his shoulder and a strong sense of entitlement. The film seems to be aware of the difficulty in making a repo man a sympathetic character, and so it doesn’t try very hard to make Otto likeable — just interesting. If he seems likeable at all, it’s mainly in contrast to the other characters.
As a new repo man, Otto is mentored by his co-workers Bud and “Lite”. Lite (Sy Richardson) is a man who capitalizes on the “scary black man” stereotype, using it to his advantage to intimidate people into getting out of his way when he repossesses cars. He breaks into vehicles, he throws personal possessions out into the middle of traffic, and even fires a gun loaded with blanks to scare people off. In short, he violates any number of laws in the process of repossessing the cars. Bud, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated. Played by Harry Dean Stanton, Bud has a “code” when it comes to repossessing cars; he won’t break in and he takes care not to damage the car nor any personal property. Yet Bud is far from a clean role model; he is a heavy speed user, and the entire reason Otto gets involved in the repo business to begin with is because Bud tricked him into helping on a repossession. Bud’s boss Oly (Tom Finnegan), a jovial slob, hires Otto as a result, taking Otto’s disgust at the job in stride. In between lessons from Bud and Lite, and his own repossessions, Otto talks philosophy with the lot attendant, Miller (Tracey Walter). Miller has more than a few bats in his belfry, and is an entertaining side character in the picture. (Side note: I don’t know why so many of the characters have names reminiscent of beer companies; it’s especially funny as all food products shown in the film are white-label generics.)
The film kind of ambles along aimlessly for a while, showing different aspects of Otto’s life as he learns the ropes of repossession. There’s a rivalry with other repo men that is shown in a few scenes, and some scenes are devoted to Otto’s friends robbing mini-marts. And Otto tries to get himself a new girlfriend after picking up an alien-obsessed young woman named Leila (Olivia Barash) during a repossession. These scenes seem, and mostly are, unconnected to each other, and there isn’t much development on any of them. But there is something of a through-line in the plot: a 1964 Chevy Malibu, that has been targeted for repossession with a bounty on it of $20,000. Everybody in the repo agency takes notice when it comes over the wire; the reward amount is not only greatly out of proportion for a car that age, it’s also a large reward for any car. And soon everybody seems to be after it, and it’s every man for himself. But the repo men aren’t the only ones after it. The driver (Fox Harris) is naturally interested in keeping it himself, and he’s willing to use lethal means to keep it. Leila’s boss (Susan Barnes) wants information on it, and is willing to torture to get it. The street thugs try to steal it, though it may have just been an attack of opportunity in their case. Government agents seem to be lurking around looking for it. And the car is hot. Radioactively so. The film never quite comes together into a single coherent plot, but the Malibu comes close to making it one towards the end.
Looking at the film, it’s easy to see why Repo Man achieved cult classic status. As a comedy, it’s more quirky than funny; like Otto, the audience is often wondering just what’s going on and what’s wrong with everybody. Its characters aren’t likeable as people. The plot can only loosely be considered a story until the last twenty minutes or so, and sometimes misses a beat jumping from one scene to the next. But for all of that, it’s still a reasonably entertaining film. The characters may not be likeable, but the primary ones are interesting despite that. There are some funny moments here and there, and the film is unabashed about its weirdness, which lends it a certain charm. It’s not for everybody — but then, that’s what the term “cult classic” is all about, isn’t it?