What is punk? Is it a style, a music genre, or an attitude? Director Alex Cox argues that it’s all three–but only the the latter is the genuine article–in Repo Man, a film about a young Los Angeles punk named Otto (Emilio Estevez) who has a day that seems to confirm how much bullshit everything is: he’s fired from his crappy job at the supermarket, catches his girlfriend cheating on him with his supposed best friend, and after turning to his pot-smoking hippie parents for the money they once promised him for college is informed that they sent it all to a TV evangelist.
Broke and depressed, Otto wanders the streets one day when a man named Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) offers Otto $25 to drive a car for him. Turns out Bud’s a “repo man”–a car repossession agent–and after initially rejecting Bud’s offer of a job, Otto returns, realizing he has few other opportunities to pursue.
But more than that, Otto begins to enjoy the excitement being a repo man promises: getting into charged confrontations with strangers as he repossesses their cars is the kind of fun Otto can get on board with, and besides that he enjoys the good pay. Unlike the punk scene, which he starts to see as phony and not living up to its ideals, being a repo man is something tangible and offers him a real experience of life on the edge. As Bud tells him, “the life of a repo man is always intense.”
And his life gets more intense when he comes across a large bounty notice–$20,000–for a 1964 Chevy Malibu. But that’s only half the story, as the car’s being driven by Dr. J. Frank Parnell, who has some sort of powerful extraterrestrial being in the trunk, which vaporizes anybody who opens the trunk.
The car finds its way to LA, where it’s at first stolen by a few people before Dr. Parnell vaporizes them, and then eventually picks up Otto, who can’t believe his luck that he came across the valued car. Parnell dies and Otto drives the car back to the lot, where it’s stolen by a now disgruntled Bud.
Eventually, the car begins to glow bright green and government agents, scientists, and even the evangelist that Otto’s parents gave all their money to show up to claim the car–but everyone bursts into flames who gets near it. Everyone, that is, except for the bizarre mechanic Miller that works at the repo yard and Otto himself. Otto enters the car, it levitates into the air, and takes off into the skies over LA. The End.
But this story–which is appropriately crazy–isn’t what makes Repo Man such a great flick: it’s the little things, the details and crazy characters and its cool punk aesthetic that makes Repo Man a true cult classic.
Repo Man – A Cult Classic
Let’s talk about characters. Repo Man is a film inhabited by people who live on the edge of society, and perhaps the world itself. All of the repo men are tough borderline criminals who know what they do for a living and wear it as a badge of honor. Some are seemingly experienced car thieves while others are simply working a dirty job because it pays well.
Otto himself is a paradoxical punk rocker and somewhat good-hearted, polite young man who slam-dances and says fuck you to his boss but also folds his pants when he takes them off and has a good work ethic. He blows off the punk scene after getting into the repo game, finding the thrill of ripping off cars whose owners haven’t paid their bills much more satisfying than hanging out with his wastoid friends listening to music made by sellouts. And he’s right: Otto’s a punk in the truest sense, who wears a collared shirt and tie to his job but makes his living by doing dangerous work with real-life consequences, not buying into a style or striking a pose while living off his suburban parents.
Meanwhile, his mentor Bud is alternately wise and completely nuts, dispensing alternately dangerous and smart advice. He provides Otto with the ground rules of the repo game while they both snort cocaine one night in his car and seems genuinely heart-broken when later in the film Otto rejects him, hoping that he could be a father figure to the boy.
But in the end nobody can be trusted, not even Otto’s girlfriend, who at first seems like a true believer in UFOs but immediately flips to helping the government track down the Malibu and eventually Otto. The film spins itself into a nearly hysterical pitch where Otto goes undercover at a hospital to visit Bud, who had been shot by some punks (who happened to be some of Otto’s old friends); he’s then surrounded by government agents looking for the Malibu, a hail storm begins to rain upon the repo yard, and the Malibu starts to glow bright green.
And, in true punk fashion, Otto says “fuck that” to Leila asking about their relationship and enters the green glowing car, taking off into the sky with Miller to destinations unknown while a cool surf guitar lick plays in the background. After all, the life of a repo man is always intense.
Plate O’ Shrimp
Space case mechanic Miller gives Otto his various theories about consciousness and how after you think about something–for instance, a plate of shrimp–suddenly it begins to appear in other people’s conversations. UFOs end up being this to Otto: after picking up a young woman named Leila, who tells him about a picture of aliens she has and how she’s going to publicize their existence, suddenly the notice for the ‘64 Malibu (the one with the aliens in the trunk) comes through the wire for the repo men to chase, and then his co-workers start talking about UFOs. Before you know it, the whole plot dives into aliens and UFOs and Otto suddenly has government agents following him around.
Recurring bits throughout the film–including a trio of punks that keep committing crimes (“Let’s go do some crimes” is literally what they say); all of the food products have generic labels (“corn flakes,” “sliced peaches,” “scotch whiskey,” “beer,” and even “food”) that are a riff on the Ralph’s old generic labels; Otto’s dorky friend Kevin, whose life keeps getting worse as the film goes on (at one point he’s under a sheet at the hospital even though he’s still alive); all of the repo men are named after beers (Bud, Miller, Lite); the book Dioretix that is an expy of Dianetics; all of the government agents are blonde and wear black suits–give the film a weird coherence, where the universe it takes place in seems to run on its own wild logic. But it even makes sense outside of the film. For example: little tree car fresheners are found in every car–even a cop’s motor bike–and for good reason: the company that makes them helped finance the film.
This is a highly quotable film, as well. “You better not be a commie, I don’t want no commies in my car. No Christians, either!” “Let’s go get sushi and not pay.” “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.” “John Wayne was a fag.” “It happens sometimes. People just explode. Natural causes.” “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.” “Managing a pop group is no job for a man.” “A repo man spends his life getting into tense situations.”
“I’d Rather Die on My Feet”
Simply put, Repo Man is an ultra-hip flick with a stellar LA punk rock soundtrack, out-there characters running around Los Angeles doing bad things, legal and otherwise, and it captures the punk attitude better than most supposed “punk rock” films from this era. Although made in 1984, it has an oddly timeless quality to it. Perhaps a sci-fi comedy film about people living on the fringes would have that, though: none of them seem particularly contemporary to the time period they live in, instead existing on a background radiation frequency of the universe that some weirdos have always been attuned to, whether it’s the 1940s or 2010s.
Speaking of the music: Repo Man now has a classic soundtrack featuring the best of the LA punk scene of that time. Hell, even Circle Jerks even show up in the film as a cheesy lounge band, to which Otto laments, “I can’t believe I used to like these guys.”
And Repo Man remains an unbelievably hip film that remains super-cool even 33 years after its release, working on its own logic and dancing to its own thrumming beat, proving that punk never goes out of style–it just lays in wait for the next generation to discover it, pick up its natty threads, and say “fuck that” to whatever it is that’s trying to tell them how to be.