Kids, "R" stands for "Ridiculous Rebellion." This movie has a lot of ridiculous rebellion.
DIRECTOR: Alex Cox
I'm going to lose friends over this one. I know one person who holds this movie so close to his heart and I'm worried that anything shy of a glowing review (pun intended) might come across as flippant. That's the thing about cult movies: they are scratching an itch that the general population doesn't get. I love many many cult movies. But I also find cult movies to be the hardest to recommend to people. The movies are so niche that it would almost be disappointing or wildly impressive if the masses accepted it. I don't know if a movie gets more cult than Repo Man.
I watched this movie over two weeks ago. Yes, it has been a very busy two weeks, which partially excuses me from writing this review. But there was something willful in my lack of writing when it came to this movie. I was ashamed because I really just didn't get it. When I was in college, I often dismissed things I read because I didn't get it and I regret this attitude. If there's one thing that I try passing onto my students is to not dismiss art because you don't necessarily get it. That is more reflective on the viewer than it is on the work. So I read up on the movie after I watched it. I'm probably not the best to formally critique the movie, but I'm going to try my best. One day, I may come around. I'm open to watching it again and really digesting it in another light, but I think this might fall into the category of "eh."
The movie screams cult and weird. It prides itself on such. This is one of those movies where nothing is grounded in reality whatsoever and that actually kind of works for the aesthetics of the movie. This is a world where product placement is violently avoided --except when it isn't. This is a parallel universe, not wholly unlike They Live where the world is such a bummer and so evilly disturbing that the audience is just asked to accept it. In my reading for this movie (Thank you, the Criterion Collection, once again!), an idea I had for this movie was confirmed. The movie is so heavy-handed in its portrayal that it reads more like a ninety minute music video. The music is what latches onto the audience and I'm not necessarily opposed to that. The music is very cool and very '80s punk. The images on the screen are there to support the ride you are taking aurally. But as I've said many times, I'm about the characters and the development. I kind of love music videos that have a bit of a narrative to them and Alex Cox has that attitude in the movie. Not much is explained, especially considering that this technically could be considered a science fiction film. Yet, I think I cheapen both Repo Man and the science fiction genre by tossing this movie in that genre. But the opening sequence shows a police officer getting vaporized by a beam of light coming out a weird dude's trunk. I'm not going to try to explain what little I can about this light, but that does place this movie in a bizarre world where anything can happen. The undercurrent for the movie is that this is science fiction, but it almost seems that everyone, characters and production team included, don't really care that this is a science fiction departure from reality.
Instead, this movie is about attitude. Emilio Estevez's Otto learns from Harry Dean Stanton's Bud about the life of a repo man. There is the background story of trying to reel in the really big fish. (Oh my goodness! Is this an '80s retelling of The Old Man and the Sea? Now I want to write that essay!) But that story really is a passive goal for Otto. That expensive car is out there and someone has to get it, but it is more about the setting than actually Otto's primary concern. Rather the story focuses on his internal conflict of trying to find success at something while being comfortable in a world that wants to punch his face in. I'm pretty sure that I've already put more thought into that analysis than Alex Cox probably did, but sometimes there is a deeper meaning to the movie than what the auteur provided. I know that Alex Cox went off the deep end later, especially by the time that he made the sequel Repo Chick. Otto isn't the most compelling character and there are times that I wanted to punch his face in like everyone else was doing, but he definitely has layers despite the fact that he wears his heart on his sleeve. I have a little bit of that guilty pleasure / Breaking Bad / Tony Soprano feeling when I am compelled to watch Otto because he is a fundamentally bad dude. But he's also a bad guy living in a world with worse guys.
I said that I didn't really get this movie, but I'd like to slightly amend that. I got the heavy handed satire of American society. When I say that I didn't get that, I feel like there has to be another level that I'm not getting. There are many moments when archetypes replace round characters to comment on the nature of consumerism and religion with their effects on the unthinking public. I think I might be overthinking it, but the analysis and criticisms portrayed within were just so simple. The parents who had given all of their money to the TV preacher is such a small moment that doesn't really strike home because the alternative is that Otto gets the money for his own selfish gains. I can't really shake my head saying, "Oh no, look what they did to their baby boy because the TV bilked them" because Otto would be doing the same thing. Using archetypes to satire always feels a little bit cheap. When I can relate to a character and see myself in him or her and then they let me down, I seriously look at my own life and wonder if what I'm doing is right. Two-dimensional archetypes like the TV preacher, the parents, the store manager, the security guards, the UFO conspiracy theorists, etc. allow me to distance myself from these characters. I'm sure it gives the audience the self-satisfaction that they are better than these guys, but how does that bring about change? If this is such a scathing satire about America, why isn't there opportunity for change. It seems so short sighted. So my initial statement? The one about "Ridiculous Rebellion"? That's what this movie offers. It is about self-satisfaction and knowing that you are better than the man when in no way is that true.
The most glowing thing that I can say about this movie is that it did keep my attention. I don't think I peeked at my phone once during the movie and that is pretty high praise. (I swear, technology has broken me and turned me into the worst version of myself...I say while typing a blog.) Yes, the plot is really secondary to the atmosphere, but that atmosphere is pretty cool. Harry Dean Stanton's Bud is a riveting character. In the booklet, it mentioned that many of the complaints about this movie is that it didn't really sell the concept of how dangerous it is to be a real repo man. If that's true, that's crazy. This movie portrays repo men as drug addicts who regularly get beat up and in gun fights. I know that there are television reality shows about real repo men, but those seem even more staged than this movie did. I guess that world is completely foreign to me and I find it very cool to just peek into that world. That might be the most punk rock thing about the movie as a whole: legal theft. Everyone who worked there were expert thieves who regularly got into car chases and were involved in gang style fights. How cool is that? I guess Alex Cox gets it right because he named his movie after the most important element of his film: being a repo man. It's really just the throughline structure and the unlikable anti-hero that makes the movie truly blah for me. It's not forgettable and there's something very cool about the movie. But it isn't good and that's something that I wish I could get past. I just needed one more layer and then I think there would be something marvelous here.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.