The scuzz-punk doom comedy of Alex Cox’s 1984 underground touchstone makes for a creepy visitation from a fracturing society. Released at the midpoint of the Reagan era’s celebration of suburban consumerism, it had a gutter-level view of Los Angeles’ bleached-out sprawl and social entropy. Its characters tend toward the feral: repo men who hunt the cars whose owners can’t pay up, shotgun-toting punks, cold-eyed federal agents, or bugged-out cult followers. Hints of an oppressive police state are everywhere, and the scent of nuclear apocalypse is on the land. In the middle of all the science-fiction-tinged end-times bleakness, though, Cox mines a catchphrase-studded seam of absurdist humor that’s one of the film’s most durable qualities.
Emilio Estevez, just on the cusp of Brat Pack fame, plays Otto, a punk adrift. He finds a calling of sorts as a repo man apprenticing under Bud (Harry Dean Stanton, hilariously laconic), a motormouthed nihilist who dresses like a Mormon missionary and adheres strictly to his “Repo Code” (“ordinary people spend their lives avoiding tense situations, a repo man spends his life getting into tense situations… let’s get a drink”). While Otto learns the ways of the streets, side plots follow his old punk friends on a pill-popping crime spree and also J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris), a mad scientist who’s driving around in a 1964 Chevy Malibu with a neutron bomb in the trunk that vaporizes anybody who opens it and which is slowly liquefying Parnell’s innards. The repo men then discover there’s a $20,000 warrant for the radioactive sedan.
The stories all smash together like a Friday-afternoon Angeleno traffic jam. The chaotic result is a gonzo slab of 1980s underground grunge that also riffs on Kiss Me Deadly’s famous apocalypse briefcase, dangerous-youth films like Clockwork Orange, the West Coast hardcore scene, and the cults that have long bloomed in the Southland’s smoggy, deadening warmth. Everywhere the none-too-bright Otto turns, he’s given more advice by guru-esque repo men. The half-homeless Miller (the alien-like Tracey Walter) pitches Otto on everything from Scientology to his UFO-heavy theory about the “lattice of coincidence” that rules everyone’s lives and his belief that “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.” Scowling badass Light (Sy Richardson) shows Otto how to hotwire a car and opines that “managing a pop group’s no job for a man.” “Let’s all leech off the state,” sing the Circle Jerks in their irony-drenched lounge band cameo. “Gee, the money’s really great.”
In between these off-key monologues and the broad loopy comedy of the Malibu chase, Cox crafts a genuinely haunting vision of a place where a Reaganite every-man-for-himself ethos has taken firm hold. All those empty freeways, strip malls, vacant lots, and lonely drives. Emphasizing the film’s lonely aura is the spooky cinematography by Robby Muller, who shot the same kind of dark, wide-open American spaces in Paris, Texas and Mystery Train. The soundtrack is half atmospheric surf-guitar and half punchy numbers from California punk’s golden age (Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies); that schizophrenia between spaced-out blankness and raw aggression perfectly centering the film as a time capsule from the early part of that sleepwalking yet Armageddon-tweaked decade.
The impeccably packaged Criterion Collection’s edition is long overdue, at least for those who hold the film dear as a cult item; much better this than those muddy fourth-generation VHS tapes. The transfer is clean without being pristine; there was only so much one could do to the sound recording on a film as lo-fi as this. Its extras have almost all been seen before but this collection somehow feels definitive. The interviews and commentary (plenty of cast and crew appear delighted to come back and talk about the film as often as required) are as gangly and discursive as the film itself.
Besides a long-form interview with a beautifully cantankerous and fatalistic Harry Dean Stanton, the high point is Cox’s deft way of presenting the deleted scenes. Instead of just showing the cut scenes and gabbing about them, Cox (a decent comic actor in his own right) watches them with Sam Cohen, the actual, late inventor of the neutron bomb. When Cox says to Cohen, while viewing a deleted sex scene, that “I thought I could be a director of great erotic films,” the 80-plus year-old Cohen (who had seen Repo Man a few dozen times and whose favorite film was Dr. Strangelove) deadpans, “That might not be your bag, Alex.” There’s a giddy, is-this-happening? quality to the whole segment that seems the perfect capstone to one of American film’s great, mad oddities.