If there’s a single joke that connects the majority of the films in the Brattle’s Sunshine Noir series, it’s that the “detectives,” for the most part, don’t have a whole lot of investment in the mysteries they’re supposed to be investigating. Joaquín Phoenix’s Doc, Jeff Bridges’s Dude, Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe—for all of them, the central question isn’t so much “Whodunnit?” as “What am I doing?” None of these burnout gumshoes are what you would call “proactive,” instead being propelled through the plot by forces around them.
This is doubly true for Otto Maddox, the “white suburban punk” played by Emilio Estevez in Alex Cox’s Repo Man: not only does Otto not care, he’s built an entire ethos around not caring. He only becomes a repo man when he’s up off the street to aid a con; he only gets involved in the fight against a vast government conspiracy because he’s looking to get laid; and he only apprehends the Chevy Malibu with a trunkful of dead aliens because it repeatedly drives right in front of him. The closest thing we see to passion in Otto’s disaffected existence is when he’s stomping around the desert shouting the lyrics to Black Flag’s “TV Party.” Otto’s entire life is predicated upon, in the words of garage mechanic Miller, “the lattice of coincidence.”
I realize that all of this does not make Repo Man sound like the most dynamic film. But on the contrary, the film crackles with an authentic punk energy rare in film (first-time director Cox would bring this sensibility to the mainstream two years later with Sid and Nancy). If it’s light on plot, it makes up for it with great performances (including career-defining turns from Harry Dean Stanton and Tracey Walter), deathless one-liners (“Let’s go do some crimes!”), and a landmark soundtrack that does roughly for ’80s LA hardcore punk what The Harder They Come did for reggae. There’s a lot to take in—but then, as Stanton says between snorts of crank, “Repo Man is always intense.”
dir. Alex Cox
Part of the ongoing series: Sunshine Noir