Criterion Corner Review: Alex Cox's 'Repo Man'

“It happens sometimes. People just explode. Natural causes.”

It’s often said that Alex Cox’s “Repo Man” borrows heavily from Robert Aldrich’s nihilistic noir “Kiss Me Deadly,” but it would be more accurate to say that “Repo Man” exists in the fissures of “Kiss Me Deadly’s” apocalyptic finale, taking place in the time between the great whatsit is opened and the time its radioactive contents reach critical mass. Here’s a vision of America where doomsday is always in the immediate forecast – the box has been opened and the button has been pushed, but nobody seems particularly concerned about the imminent explosion. It’s the end times, and yet hope springs eternal.

Emilio Estevez is Otto, the snotty but generic rocker guy who gets fired from his archetypically boring job as a supermarket clerk and immediately begins to rage against The Man, kicking the rotten Los Angeles dust and shouting the names of network TV shows (“Dallas. The Jeffersons. Monday Night Football!”). Otto’s impulse is to retreat from the mainstream and into a community that better prioritizes the individual, but it turns out that he doesn’t really have a culture with which to counter it.

There’s no camaraderie among his gang of burnouts (he leaves a girl in his bed in order to grab a beer from the kitchen, and when he returns she’s making out with his friend), and they wear slip in and out of their supposedly fierce individualism like it’s just another studded leather jacket (“let’s go do some crime!” isn’t really much of a mission statement). Otto’s parents literally never leave the couch, watching televangelism and pledging away the money that he thought they’d use to buy their son a future. It’s Reagan’s America, and everyone else is just living in it. And then, Otto meets a scarecrow of a man named Bud, who looks an awful lot like Harry Dean Stanton. But Bud isn’t just any kind of man, he’s a repo man. And Otto becomes a repo man himself without even realizing that it’s happening. All he has to do is exchange his raggedy clothes for a suit and tie, and suddenly he has some control. He can take things from people.

But Otto hasn’t broken the cycle, he’s just dressed it in a new wardrobe. Fortunately for Otto, one of the cars he repossesses has something special in the trunk, something that has the power to shake things up, up, and away (and, um, evaporate anyone who comes near the hatch with a delightfully cut-rate special effect that seems lifted from the weirdest movie Roger Corman never made). At a time when Cold War tensions were high and nuclear weapons were a clear and present danger, the great whatsit had to become more extraordinary. Aliens in the trunk of a Malibu, seedy and special all wrapped into one.

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“Ah, the futility of it all. There’s no chance or winning. The amount of people never ends. There has gotta be something more worthwhile to life outside of money and momentary thrill. I mean, whaddaya gonna do – spend the rest of your life searching out deadbeats?” – Mark Lewis

That’s an excerpt from an interview included in the booklet of Criterion’s new “Repo Man” Blu-ray, a chat between Alex Cox and real-life repo man Mark Lewis, with whom Cox worked before deciding to become a filmmaker. Appropriately enough, I’m not sure I’ve encountered a more precisely accurate summation of this wild movie (a film which would be weird for an independent production, but is downright inexplicable as a product of the studio system). Lewis is relating to Cox why he eventually got out of the repo business, having already discussed the live-wire dangers of the job, the perils implicit in professionally stealing cars from unsavory characters and the inertia of capitalistic living, which seduces you with its velocity until you’re too old to break the flow. Lewis ends the interview by posing the question that “Repo Man” exists to answer as best it can, Alex Cox’s debut feature coalescing a fun punk parody into a “what does it all mean?” movie of the highest order.

For all of its violence and grime, “Repo Man” is a profoundly hopeful film. It scoffs at notions of upward mobility (locating such opportunities firmly in the dead-end corporate world, where Otto’s friend is convinced that in two years he could be “manager. King. God.”), but even though it feels like the end of the world, there’s always the looming promise of a better tomorrow. “Repo Man” is inextricable from the era in which it was made – the arid pre-Sundance aesthetic doesn’t locate the film in a particular epoch so much as the soundtrack does, opening with an iconic Iggy Pop rager that ultimately proved to be the film’s financial salvation – but at the same time the movie’s reliance on “Kiss Me Deadly” evinces an understanding that every generation feels as though they’re living in the end times. And yet, so far, none of them have been right.

Nevertheless, “Repo Man” does introduce the terrifying threat of singularity, Alex Cox suggesting that the clannishness of identity politics ironically resulted in a stereotyping that made it infinitely more difficult for someone to express themselves. As Bud explains, “Nobody knows if it’s your car or somebody else’s car.” And then there’s the generic branding, a hilarious recurring visual gag in which products are labeled as they are rather than being stamped with a brand (Otto opens the door to his parents’ refrigerator and sees white cartons labeled only as “Food”). Mileage will vary, and those who don’t jive with Cox’s sardonic sense of humor will probably feel how the film’s narrative thrust hinges on social developments in order to compensate for a threadbare plot, but the sheer strangeness of it all has a magnetic effect, and every line of dialogue is eminently quotable in its own way.

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“Ordinary f**king people. I hate ‘em.”

Well, we all do. In the immortal words of Ashlee Simpson, “Who wants to be ordinary in this crazy mixed up world?” Alex Cox’s debut is idiosyncratic to the core, and yet at the same time a synthesis of so many films that came before it, and the inspiration for so many that would follow in its wake. It’s a movie about how we’re all alone together, a film of its time and yet not of this world.

THE PICTURE:  The transfer isn’t flawless, but its defects – none of which are even noticeable if you’re not looking for them – have a way of contributing to the film’s grungy atmosphere and inherent weirdness. The rare instances of mild noise that can be found in the picture hardly feel out of place, though I’m not sure if I love how this transfer presents a slightly darker image than previous editions. But now I’m just filling space, as there’s nothing of substance to complain about here. A definitive HD edition.

THE EXTRAS: Alex Cox’s inevitable audio commentary (dude loves talking about films, whether they be his own or those of another director) is repurposed from a near-ancient DVD, but it’s nevertheless an invaluable and engaging supplement. In fact, most of the bonus material rides an agreeably retro vibe, with most of the video interviews (“Harry Zen Stanton”) and talking head discussions (“Repossessed,” in which various figures from the film discuss its unusual production) having been filmed about eight years ago (you won’t care). Also, from the department of “Why Not?” neutron bomb inventor Sam Cohen shows up to chat about scenes that were ultimately cut from the movie. One feature that is exclusive to this particular release is a video interview with Iggy Pop, who discusses his relationship with Alex Cox and what he thought about the movie once it was presented to him.

THE BEST BIT: The highlight of this disc might have to be Alex Cox and Dick Rude’s TV-friendly re-edit of the film, which was done so that “Repo Man” could air on networks across the country. Brutalized into a boxy 1:33.1 aspect ratio and dubbed to oblivion (witness the birth of “melon farmer”), the TV doesn’t just correct the language and remove the drugs, it also goes so far as to insert new shots of the Malibu in which the Hopi symbol dissolves into a vision of the devil, an incomprehensible attempt to root this film in a familiar moral context.

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THE ARTWORK: I’m not exactly a fan of Tyler Stout, whose orgiastically cluttered homages to beloved films strike me as garish and grotesque. Needless to say, when I slipped “Repo Man” out from its sheath and saw Stout’s unmistakable style slathered over it, I was horrified. And then, in the time it takes to blink, I came around. Kudos to the folks at Criterion for recognizing a perfect match of artist and material where my bias might have prevented me from giving it a chance, because Stout’s work absolutely nails the messy punk delirium of Cox’s film. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg, as the thick and immaculately designed booklet (filled with Cox’s original illustrations) is a beautiful thing to see. Even the artwork on the disc itself is a clever nod to the movie stored inside. It isn’t easy for me to admit this, but “Repo Man” is one of the most brilliantly designed Criterion releases yet.

For a more detailed look inside Criterion's edition of "Repo Man," visit the Tumblr.

THE SCORE: 8.7 / 10

The Criterion Collection will release "Repo Man" on Blu-ray and DVD on 4/16/2013