It all started in Los Alamos. Or ended. Same thing.
Emerging from Los Alamos, a 1964 Chevy Malibu has something extraordinary in the trunk. Whatever it is, the object destroys anybody who sets eyes on it. When a cop looks into the trunk, he’s vaporized into thin air, leaving nothing but his boots. Could it be a nuclear bomb? Could it be four aliens steadily decaying? Could it be the radioactive American dream? Who cares. All people are sure of is that somebody put a $20k reward on the car, and now everybody is out to get it.
In the early 1980s, another global recession hit the United States, seeing the national unemployment rate hitting 10.8% in late 1982. The American Dream was dying on the vine as wages stagnated and people were going into debt. In the one scene with a live band, Circle Jerks transformed into a hotel lounge scene to sing “We just get by however we can. We all gotta duck when the shit hits the fan. Shoo be do wop wop say what yeah.” The people who made out during this period? Corporations and credit companies.
When you have no values left in the world, when you’re jaded by the lack of opportunities passed down by your parents and their parents, its then that you drop to become the lowest of the low: a repo man. Otto (Emilio Estevez) is sick and tired of being abused by insecure egomaniacal managers when he stumbles into the repossession racket for the low low price of $25. He’s surrounded by speed addicts and adrenaline freaks who get off on the thrills of stealing cars from people who can’t pay their bills. Otto and Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) justify it by saying its people who won’t pay their bills – one of their targets is even a millionaire – but, the majority of their victims are other regular people struggling in the same manner. And then comes the 1964 Malibu…
Of course, Otto isn’t the only one scamming his way to the top. His friends are popper-huffing thieves who hold up liquor stores and boost cars (their thievery isn’t corporate sponsored). He meets a girl who works for a UFO conspiracy theory group, also chasing after the Malibu. His parents are pot-addicted ex-hippies who give away their money to televangelists. Bud is looking to use the Malibu money to start his own repossession company. The FBI are chasing the Malibu to keep the lowlives from stealing the dream. The televangelists are searching for their own financial reward. J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris), the driver of the car, is looking to destroy the world. But, are they just chasing a fiction?
Ultimately, Otto is just a puppet to the people who want to control him. The repo guys want to control him for their own profit. His girlfriend wants to control him for his access to the car. At one point, his parents wanted to control his schooling but gave away his financial reward. His friends want to shit all over him. The only person who wants to let him live his own life is also his salvation, whatever that might be worth.
For a low budget cult movie, every element of the film is working on all levels. The punk soundtrack is used in the most biting of manners. Robbie Mueller’s cinematography understands the depths and ironies in all of the scenes. But, its the actors who pull it all together. The unhinged Fox Harris walks away with every scene he’s in, especially with his discussion on the morality of nuclear bombs. Tracey Walter gives an empathetic performance as a spaced-out hippy discussing the lattice of coincidence that connects the film. A very young Emilio Estevez turns in a shockingly solid performance as the jaded egotistical youth.
But, we’re all here to celebrate Harry Dean Stanton’s Bud. On the commentary, they hired Stanton on a note that described him as a cross between the gritty old western and a cadaver. It’s a perfect description for a character torn between his own self-made fake Repo Code and the death that awaits him on the other side of this job. Already nearing retirement age (he was already 56 during filming), Bud knows that this is all he has and he’s been chasing that dream for far too long to be satisfied. Stanton gives a performance that isn’t just world-weary but done with it all. Otto is his last chance to impart any of this knowledge onto the next generation, and he knows it. At the end, Bud is discovered in an abandoned lot at the wheel of a glowing Malibu with a bandage wrapped around his head, holding a gun and not giving two fucks about anything; it’s Bud’s last stand, and Stanton turns in one of the most fantastic cemented performances of a man just waiting for the end.