Repo Men (Miguel Sapochnik, 2010)

Be a good boy and pay your loans, or the repo men will come (spoiler notice)

Remy and Jake are damaged goods. After the war, their desensitization towards violence was so all-consuming they ended up with the grisliest of jobs without batting an eye: they became repossession men.

When you default on your mortgage, the bank takes back your house. In this depressing near future, so too your expensive mechanical organs. Fail to pay the extortionate monthly fee and a repo man from the Union visits your house in the middle of the night to stun you and cut you open. Since the money is all gone, a replacement organ is out of the question. Reclamation invariably means the death of the patient.

The moral disconnect Remy and Jake (played respectively by Jude Law and Forest Whitaker) have is such that they feel they are doing the right thing. They maintain order and uphold the rules. Which is important for a reason that is never stipulated. At the same time, they often act like hooligans. Despite Law’s inerasable appearance of an intellectual, his Remy is a violent sociopath that cuts into people with a whistle on his lips. All that changes after an accident at work. He becomes the involuntary recipient of an artificial heart. At that moment, his conscience jump-starts back to life: he now understands the terror of his victims and is incapable of cutting into them anymore. It goes without saying he starts defaulting on his own astronomical loan and is forced to run, like they all do. His lifelong friendship with Jake suffers an irreparable schism. Jake is still a repo man who knows that a job is a job.

Director Sapochnik takes his good time to get to this point. He first wants to build up the bond between Remy and Jake, Remy’s home life with his wife (Carice van Houten) and son, and the dismal future world where everyone eventually needs a new organ and falls into the Union’s deadly snare. When Remy finally defects, he has to turn away from his former life and tags along with fugitive night club singer Beth (Alice Braga), who is more machine than human. Escaping deeper and deeper into the dilapidated underbelly of Los Angeles, it doesn’t take long before they are forced to make a stand.

I am going to talk about the ending for a moment. It employs the same device 2001’s Vanilla Sky was predicated on. The final half hour turns out to be a false reality, a dream constructed in the brain-damaged mind of Remy after he lost the fight with Jake. The snip between real and illusion is seamless, its only hint that Remy’s narration disappears (as he has stopped writing his memoirs). After this the story proceeds and with much care and deliberateness, slowly amps up the incredulity. It starts out plausible enough, with Remy and Beth resolving to take down the Union once and for all. It is only slightly dissonant with the tone of the movie: the audience might not have expected an action hero ending, but won’t object. Then the miracles start piling up. A brief encounter with Remy’s wife in the subway can almost be called comical. Their entry into Union headquarters seems extremely lucky. It is here that the dream veers off into exaggeration and fantasy. Remy and Beth end up in an endless factory hall occupied by pristine technicians crafting organs. They’re more Oompa Loompa in nature than human.

Then Repo Men goes into its bloodiest brawl yet. In a scene that is equal parts 300 and Old Boy, Remy carves his way through a corridor of people with hacksaws, surgical hammers, guns and knives. His objective is to reach the ‘pink door’, behind which are the servers that control the whole system (in movies like these, evil organizations never bother with backups). A small way up the corridor is a directional sign that says ‘pink door’, that way. It’s straight up Wizard of Oz. When Remy and Beth reach the server room, a harrowing climax begins. It consists of minutes of the two groping around in each other’s body to scan their illegitimate organs in an effort to get out of the system. Their faces are crunched up in pain, they are barely clothed and Moloko’s ‘Sing It Back’ is playing. The whole thing is fueled by an atmosphere of sexual ecstasy. It’s pretty extreme.

But they succeed. Jake finally catches up with them and decides to cross over to their side. The three of them blow up the servers and escape to a tropical island, where they are amused at Remy’s success as an author: his story about repo men has become a bestseller. What a ridiculous, clichéd, undeserving ending to a great film! It is at that point, of course, that the trick is revealed. Remy is actually defeated in downtown LA, lying nigh brain-dead on a stretcher, Beth is about to be harvested. Jake looks at his former brother in arms, feeling regret and pity. A job is a job.

What’s so excellent about this ending is not that it is wholly surprising or novel, but how well it fools the viewer while all but telegraphing its true colors. Once the twist is revealed, the film basically says: “Hey you, didn’t you notice anything? Didn’t you see how ridiculous everything had become?” Yes: how could we have ever gone along with the madness? That is the magic of suspension of disbelief. All that’s left to us is to marvel at the unveiled trickery.

Repo Men uses this device to great effect to cap the story, but it’s not the only weapon in its arsenal. In fact, it employs many: a subjective narrator, flashbacks, frequent changes in tone (from comedy to ultra-violence) and mid-movie adjustments to its genre. It’s like a body that many new organs were grafted onto. Rather than becoming monstrous, it suits the film. These are not cheap maneuvers, but part of a tradition of science fiction storytelling. Repo Men is one of the better movies in its genre to appear in the last years. It does what this genre is so uniquely suited for: it puts real people in speculative situations that exaggerate our current world, and watches how they, and we, would act. The motor of Repo Men are the characters, Remy and Jake, played with great humanity, that transport us to this brave new world with such facility that it becomes easy to picture ourselves in their shoes. This is the reason that science fiction stories have such worth and should be held in much higher esteem than they usually are.

Roderick Leeuwenhart

1 comment: