I am not one for top ten lists, but when pressed to compile a list of my ten favorite films one film always appears. Times change and so do tastes. A few films that once ruled the roost have found themselves on the chopping block – (i.e. Empire Strikes Back, 2001, Miller’s Crossing). There fate came about not because they are bad films, but simply because they lost favor. They marked more of a moment in time, a lack of experience, and a general ignorance of other films. Every film I see brings new choices and the process of selection is one that is constantly in flux. However, one film has continually remained a staple on such an unstable list. That film is Repo Man.
I saw the last ten minutes of this film when I was twelve years old. It played on the A&E channel back when the A&E channel didn’t just play crime and detective shows. This was back when Evening at the Improv was the cornerstone of their programming and al the comedians were nobodies standing in front of that famous brick wall. Waiting for the jokes to start I saw an iridescent car floating high above the Los Angeles cityscape. The city lights zoomed by in a psychedelic blur as Emilo Estevez peered out from the car window and Bob the Goon from Batman flew this glowing vehicle into the stratosphere while a haunting score escorted them on their way.
That night I watched all of Evening at the Improv and I stayed up extra late to see the second showing of this mysterious movie. Up to this point in time I had little idea of anything outside of the mainstream. Most of the jokes in Repo Man flew way over my head, but there was a vibe, a late night vibe, that flowed through the film creating otherworldliness. Alex Cox had crafted a film that felt like it came from an alternate universe, a dream world that contained many similarities to our own world, but a logic that wholly escaped our world.
Though the story of Repo Man is a rather convoluted scenario that starts with car on its way from Los Alamos to Los Angeles is carrying stolen alien carcasses, the film itself feels effortless. Never laboring to intertwine the lives of gun-totting punks, UFO conspiracy theorists, secret government task forces, undercover agents, and a very hot Chevy Malibu – Repo Man is a quilt work without visible seams. The film focuses mainly on young punk, Otto (Estevez), and his introduction to the to the wild world of car repossession. Brought into the racket by Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) it doesn’t take long before Otto is addicted to the intense life of the repo man. On the road he’s looking for the next big score or tangling with the Rodriguez’s Brothers. At the impound yard he is given the life philosophies of various repo men and the yard’s most out-there resident, Miller. Played by veteran character actor Tracey Walter (Batman, Conan the Destroyer) Miller professes a theory of connectedness that runs throughout Alex Cox’s lil’ masterpiece.
What makes Repo Man so special and a film that continues to entertain are all the subtle details that lie buried in the film. Small visual gags, audible clues, and double meaning abound. With each subsequent viewing another connection can be found. Nothing in the film is only referenced one, everything comes back, drawing a line between two points, connecting two dots. Just as Miller tries to explain to Otto that there are unseen forces at work in the world it begins to feel as if Alex Cox is that unseen force working in the shadows. Planting references here and there, Cox creates a film that does not hammer home its smartness, but lets the viewer discover it. Like Miller’s mentioning of how someone may mention a platter of shrimp only moments after you were just thinking about a platter of shrimp, Alex Cox does not force such a platter of shrimp into the film later on in the film, just to prove his character’s point. Instead, the platter of shrimp is hidden on a sign, in the background, easily overlooked. But it is there. The connections abound, but only if you look for them. Otherwise, they work like those unseen forces, a stitching that goes unseen, but holds together a crazy quilt of ideas.
Repo Man first introduced me to a whole new form of cinema, something I never had seen before and while I have seen many films like Repo Man since that one life changing night I always come back to Repo Man with fresh eyes. There is something at work in this film that is not at play in so many other offbeat, non-mainstream films. Repo Man is smart without showing off. It’s the difference between a braggart, know-it-all, and a wise sage. Keeping his smartness and his coolness quiet is the key to Cox’s success. So many filmmakers today make movies to stay one-step ahead of their audiences and to be toasted for their cleverness. Cox doesn’t push for this sort of praise and that is why he deserves roaring applause.