“The life of a repo man is always intense”: why Repo Man was Harry Dean Stanton’s best film

“What was Harry Dean Stanton’s best movie: Repo Man or Paris, Texas?”
That was the question that sadly popped up on my Facebook feed with the overnight news that Harry Dean Stanton had passed away, aged 91.
Not to take anything away from Stanton’s other fantastic, memorable work (Twin Peaks et al), delivered by a character actor with his heart on his wrinkled sleeve and his soul on his weathered face, but for my greenbacks his greatest movie was Repo Man.
It never won the Palme d’Or like Paris, Texas. In fact, Alex Cox’s, low-budget cult comedy was underappreciated upon its release in 1984. But it won my heart. I’ve probably watched it more than any other comedy and I enjoy it every time.
“A volatile, toxic potion of satire and nihilism, road movie and science fiction, violence and comedy, the unclassifiable sensibility of Alex Cox’s Repo Man is the model and inspiration for a potent strain of post-punk American comedy that includes not only Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), but also early Coen brothers (Raising Arizona, in particular), Men In Black, and even (in a weird way) The X-Files,” wrote film critic Jim Emerson.
Stanton’s Bud, a veteran repo man with a hatred of hippies, Christians, rival repo men and those with poor credit history, is a masterclass in character acting. The dry bon mots drop from Stanton’s lips like blessed ash from a cigarette.
“See, an ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations … a repo man spends his life getting into tense situations,” Bud tells his young repo man apprentice Otto (Emilio Estevez in what I regard as his best role as well).
Those words stack up as one of the best raison d’etres I’ve ever heard from Hollywood.
And the lives of repo men Bud and Otto ARE hilariously intense, taking in everything from car chases, a lobotomised nuclear scientist with the corpse of an alien in the boot of his Chevy Malibu, the CIA, John Wayne in a dress, sex, drugs, violence and religion.
Stanton is the no-shit nihilistic centre of Cox’s satire on American society: the real deal in a world full of phoniness, his adventures set to a killer soundtrack featuring Iggy Pop, The Circle Jerks and Black Flag.
There is no redemption for anyone in Repo Man. Everyone is out to make a buck; aliens exist; the rules are for suckers; revenge is taken; the government is intrusive and brutal, shitting on the little man and the small businessmen.
Even our hero, Otto, a white suburbanite punk turned repo hustler, remains a reprobate to the end. He is never more hilarious than when he finds his old friend and workmate Kevin, brutally beaten, under a sheet in hospital, then briskly walks away with perfect comic timing.
Yet still we cheer on our repo men. They have a code: something that separates them from the cowardly average consumer, dulled as they are by society, seduced by organised religion, too afraid to break the rules.
“Look at those assholes, ordinary fucking people. I hate ‘em,” says Bud.
We are invited to hate ordinary people, too. And we do.
For all their faults, our repo men were alive. They lived.
So did Stanton.
And he brought it to the screen every time.

My new thriller Game Of Killers: The Spartan is out now as an ebook or paperback.

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