Repo Man

December 1, 2010

Stanton, Estevez, the code

You know Repo Man is going to be good when you figure out that its most demented character—an auto-repossession worker (Tracey Walter) who gives every indication of missing a frontal lobe or two—is the only person who really knows what’s going on. Not in a specific way, mind you. But this whacked-out creature has a theory of the way the universe works.

He wonders why, for instance, when you think about a plate of shrimp, that somebody always mentions shrimp, or a plate, or a plate of shrimp, within the next few days—that suddenly all you hear about is shrimp?

Well, maybe that doesn’t happen to you. But this man knows that everything is connected, and he’s right. About a half an hour later, a character walks into a deli, and a hand-painted sign catches your eye: “Special: Plate O’ Shrimp.”

It’s proof that there really is order in the scattered, fragmented world of Repo Man. It would be silly—and beside the point—to summarize the plot, which isn’t particularly important to the movie. But, for the record: It begins with a scientist (I think), on the lam from the nuclear tests at Los Alamos, who drives his radioactive car (carrying the corpses of some extraterrestrials in the trunk) into Los Angeles—where else?

And there’s this kid named Otto Maddux (say it out loud), played by Emilio Estevez, Martin Sheen’s son. He needs a job and gets hooked up with some repo men, retrieving cars when the payments go overdue. The leader of these repo men is played by Harry Dean Stanton, the pock-marked, rat-faced supporting actor who has become a central figure in the history of low-life cinema.

The movie includes their repossession adventures, Otto’s punk friends performing random crimes, and a new romance for Otto with a girl who has an odd interest in aliens. But it’s really a mad crazy-quilt for the punk age, a cornucopia of absurd events that start to make sense after a while. Repo Man has bits and pieces flying all over the place; it can’t quite hold up under the strain of trying to tie them all together, and it falls apart near the end. But it’s fun getting there.

The film is the brainchild of a British-born, California-educated man named Alex Cox, whose first feature this is. Cox clearly has a lively visual imagination (he’s helped by the great German cinematographer, Robby Muller), and a good sense of pace. His dialogue ranges from the loopily brilliant (like Tracey Walter’s ruminations) to the relentlessly profane.

And he knows whereof he speaks. After he went to film school, Cox worked for a while as an auto-repossessor in Los Angeles. Coming from that strange business, it must have seemed normal to jump into the surreal world of Repo Man.

That doesn’t quite explain the plate of shrimp. But I know this much: They’re out there, these shrimp, plates, and plates of shrimp. Don’t be surprised when you start noticing them.

First published in the Herald, 1984.

This was awfully fun when it first arrived – and still is, sure, but really was then. Stanton was having his apotheosis (Paris, Texas was happening, too) and he turned away from the sleazy roles he’d been perfecting for so long. Which was kind of a shame, although you get why he’d do that.


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