Directed by: Alex Cox
Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, Emilio Estevez, Tracey Walter, Vonetta McGee, Olivia Barash
Overlooked on its initial release, only to be rediscovered at a time when its creator's career had been irreparably damaged, Repo Man is the very definition of a cult movie.
If you were a British or Irish movie lover in the late 1980s, Repo Man's writer/director Alex Cox (seen here playing a garage attendant) likely played a seminal role in your life. As host of BBC's Moviedrome, Cox would introduce his favourite cult movies each Sunday night, introducing a generation to a world of cinema beyond the mainstream. By 1988, when the show launched, his career in the US was over, thanks to a trio of Stateside lensed flops: Repo Man, Straight to Hell and Walker. Thanks to Moviedrome, however, fans of the show sought out his work, and Repo Man found a new life on VHS.
The movie is a mixture of Cox's experiences of working as a car repossessor himself and the work of LSD era writers like Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary, all blended with his love of cult cinema and punk music.
A fresh-faced Emilio Estevez makes for a charismatic lead as Otto, a disillusioned young LA suburbanite who walks out on his job stacking shelves at a supermarket, only to find the money his parents had promised him to fund a trip to Europe has instead been donated to a TV evangelist. Duped into stealing a car for repo man Bud (Stanton), Otto reluctantly agrees to join his repossession team. This leads him to meet Leila (Barash, best known for her title role in the controversial Little House on the Prairie episode Sylvia), a young woman who claims to possess photographic evidence of the existence of extra terrestrials and is being hunted by a team of blond haired men in black. Meanwhile, a Chevy Malibu with a mysterious and deadly cargo in its trunk (rendered as a glowing force in homage to Kiss Me Deadly) is making its way towards LA.
On paper, Repo Man sounds a lot more bonkers than the film Cox actually put on screen. Cox sells it by taking every aspect of the story seriously, and the film never comes off as self aware or parodic. If you excised the sci-fi sub-plot, you would still be left with a blackly comic look at the lives of repo men.
Estevez may be the lead, but it's Stanton who steals the movie with arguably the performance of his life. With this and Paris, Texas, 1984 was the most important year in the life of one of American cinema's most iconic character actors. Some of the movie's best scenes feature Bud and Otto driving around LA, with the former imparting his dubious life lessons on the latter. These moments prefigure the many similar scenes in Spielberg's short lived and under-appreciated 90s TV show High Incident, or David Ayer's numerous LA cop dramas.
Another of America's great "Where do I know that guy from?" figures, Tracey Walter, also gets the role of his life as a conspiracy theorist whose outlandish prophecies are proven true in the film's Close Encounters inspired finale.
For budgetary reasons, the movie's exteriors were shot late at night or early in the morning, and the lack of traffic on LA's streets creates an other-worldly ambience. Angelinos are as absent form the city's streets as labels are from the film's supermarket produce. In charge of the cinematography is the great Robby Muller, who washes the film in the same neon sheen he would provide for William Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA a year later.
In this era of global recession, soulless commercialism and rising religious fundamentalism, Repo Man feels a lot more relevant than it might have 30 years ago. Get yourself a copy, loan it to a friend, and steal it back in the dead of night.
By Eric Hillis