Perhaps because it’s undertaken in earnest and in the end so skillfully executed, Repo Man feels like the platonic ideal of a “cult film:” inspired by punk culture, William Burroughs and R. Crumb among dozens of other obscure luminaries, Alex Cox’s 1984 breakthrough is a funny and oddly profound sci-fi odyssey tapping into ideas the zeitgeist seemed to barely know existed. It’s the kind of movie that would immediately place its director atop a list of the great influences for entire generations of filmmakers, while also evidencing an artistic vision that, unfairly if also predictably, would alienate that director from ever achieving real commercial success or even career sustainability. But in the best ways, it’s both more and less than an artistic time capsule, or curio; and revisiting it 35 years later, what is most remarkable about Repo Man is how vital and resonant it remains as just a wonderful, identifiable, scruffy little movie that transcends its mishmash of influences.
It certainly helps that Otto (Emilio Estevez), the film’s protagonist, is sort of delightfully dumb. The kind of guy who folds his pants before receiving a blowjob and then ventures downstairs to the fridge in his underwear - during a party - when his girlfriend requests a beer, Otto encapsulates a perfect kind of youthful, ignorant invincibility, and Estevez’ performance oozes unpolished energy. (It’s because of this film that Estevez’ laugh remains one for me one of the purest cinematic expressions of joy I’ve ever seen.) He knows he’s a “white suburban punk” still mashing it up as the genre begins its downward trajectory, which is undoubtedly why he agrees to take a job as a repo man after Bud (a wonderfully volatile Harry Dean Stanton) recruits him to steal a car.
Stanton’s Bud makes the act of being uncool - “dressing like a detective… kinda square” - seem deeply cool, especially when he turns out to have the same kind of rough-hewn, rebellious but desperately conventional spirit as Otto. Bud’s dream is to open up his own repo business so he’s not on the front lines, and he sees Otto as his protégé. The problem for both is that neither one has the discipline - or even basic attention to detail - needed to be particularly good at the job they actually have: it’s at least half a dozen times in the film that the prized Chevy Malibu they’re looking for crosses their path, and they don’t even notice.
The convergence of the film’s plot strands, not to mention themes, seems haphazard and coincidental, but multiple viewings underline how they’re subtly and deliberately introduced to become part of the fabric of the overall narrative. Dr. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris) is fleeing Los Alamos with a trunkful of alien corpses, leaving one pair of disembodied jack boots after another in his wake. While fulfilling his professional duties, Otto meets Leila (Olivia Barash), a young woman who happens to be looking for Parnell, or at the very least, Parnell’s cargo. Without knowing anything about the UFO business, Bud develops a fascination with Parnell’s car as the key to fulfilling his career ambitions. And waiting in the lot of the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation every time they return with a vehicle is Miller (Tracey Walter), a burnout whose random musings turn out to be prophetic, whether he’s talking about flying saucers actually being time machines, or the “lattice of coincidence” that unifies human thought and behavior even and especially when we’re not paying attention.
Cox’s satirical eye parallels the emergence of the Coen brothers in 1984 with their first mocking genre tribute Blood Simple - he has true affection for his characters but can’t resist taking the piss out of them. Otto’s parents are ex-hippies who gave away their savings to a televangelist. His former best friend Duke (Dick Rude) is a fellow punk whose idea of “doing crime” is ordering sushi and skipping out on the check, and wants nothing more than to settle down and start a family with Debbi (Jennifer Balgobin), the woman he stole while Otto was on his beer run. The scientists exude a mischievous streak, torturing Otto as much for fun as for information, and their motives are only moderately noble. That dubious loyalty pays off in the film itself, when Otto abandons his dying friend and his fledgling girlfriend to trek around in the now-flying Chevy, as government agents, religious figures and his former colleagues look on in disbelief and frustration.
But technically, the film’s eventual polish betrays its bootstrap sensibilities, which may explain why it seems to endure so effectively and age so little. Cinematographer Robby Muller, reportedly focusing more on efficiency than art, nevertheless manages to capture this feverish but understated energy in each frame, whether a window is being shot out behind Otto’s head as he tries to hot wire a car, flames rise in the foreground as Miller explains his wackadoo worldview, or various parties gather around the glowing green Malibu (an effect created with #M paint that cost $600 a bucket) to marvel at, and fear, its extraterrestrial powers. For a “punk rock” film, Repo Man still feels like a real movie, never cutting corners to accomplish the overall intent of the story, even if they still had to do so with costs.
Again, there’s something both disappointing and entirely understandable about the trajectory that Cox’s career took after this film was released, creating the critically acclaimed Sid and Nancy before shuffling through a series of productions that were underfunded, interrupted, stillborn, or suffered from bad or nonexistent marketing and distribution. “I’m pretty much defeated at this stage,” Cox said in 2011, when his ultra-low budget sequel to the film, Repo Chick, came out. “The studios, it’s like a type of card game where you don’t even get dealt a hand. How can you play in that game? The studios have won.”
That of course doesn’t mean that he was any less skillful for his failures, even if his successes have sometimes been overshadowed by some of the cultural footprints that became boilerplate - including this film’s soundtrack, its memorable dialogue, and design details like those bland blue-and-white products adorning store shelves everywhere Otto and his pals go. But ultimately, Repo Man holds up much better than as a mere “cult film,” even if it carries so many of the hallmarks of the term; as a portrait of Cox’s virtuosity, it’s a tribute and testament his iconoclastic promise, but as a movie, it’s just an irresistibly fun, irreverent character study - perhaps less of an individual or subculture than an entire era - that continues to feel fun, timeless and relevant even today.