It’s bloody and brutal but also sort of breathtaking – the confidence with which Repo Men lays the groundwork for its blistering social commentary.
Repo Men is a perfect case study as to how a story’s characters can be overwhelmed by the larger sci-fi themes and messages at play. That said, Repo Men’s message is so on-point and harrowing that it’s hard to discount the thing. Here’s that rare movie where the post-film discussion might linger in your memory longer than the actual story. Remy (Jude Law) and Jake (Forest Whitaker) are two repo men working for the “agency,” the company where the normal schmucks and crybabies go when they need a replacement organ. Your liver failing? Your pancreas going wonky? Did your ticker stop beating? Sure, come on in and buy a new one: Just $600,000.
Can’t afford the full payments? Don’t worry, they have a payment plan to fit any lifestyle. At 19 percent interest, of course. Do it for yourself. Do it for your family. (More at Techland: So someone mailed me a heart in the mail today)
In the first 20 minutes, I found myself grimly nodding along with director Miguel Sapochnik’s vision of a trademarked, privatized future. As he sees it, corporations will continue to find new and ingenious ways of extracting liquid cash from the working poor. Repo Men’s skyline is littered with corporate sponsorships. Even the bodies of humans are now filled with the Agency’s replacement “Artiforgs,” complete with bar codes that can be scanned from afar. If you are 90 days late with a payment on your replacement organ, they come to retrieve what is rightfully theirs. Usually with a stun gun and a scalpel. Sure, they ask if you want an ambulance on standby, but that question is often posed to stunned, unconscious deadbeats.
Sometimes the cops help track down the deadbeats too. Think of it as a futuristic form of debtor’s prison.
I’ve seen some discussions across the web dismiss this all as extreme and over the top. But is it really that much of a stretch? In today’s world, we have legal precedents for what a human limb is worth in real dollars, as well as insurance companies deciding what medical procedures are warranted for their customers, what drugs are to be covered by a health policy and how long a patient can stay in the hospital following a given operation. It’s not about our collective health; it’s about business decisions and cost-benefit analyses. So now imagine a future society where private insurance has surely grown too expensive, leading the sick and the hopeless to make their way over to the Agency, where they sit down with a salesman in an attempt to negotiate a price for a new organ. (More at Techland: March Madness, With Monsters – Our 64 greatest villains duke it out)
And then, when these clients can’t pay, they flee en masse to remote hideaways that are routinely raided by repo men, looking to make a quick commission.
I mention all this only as a way of saying: These themes hit a chord with me, and it was enough to lure me into this satirical thriller. If you’re already rolling your eyes at all the preaching, then this is definitely not the film for you.
Remy and Jake are good at their job, and both are clearly reaping the benefits of their organ-by-organ paychecks. Jake lives in a comfy condo and Remy has a house in the suburbs, though his longtime lover hates that she’s attached to such a brutal blue-collar butcher. She demands he quit the repo beat, and after a workplace accident leaves him with an artificial heart, Remy agrees. But then the income drops, he starts missing his payments, and Remy, too, finds himself on the run from the likes of Jake, scavenging in the ruins with the other poor saps unlucky enough to need a replacement knee or hip.
The dire and dystopic production design really steals the show here. It’s so sinister, to see human flesh and blood reduced to profit ratios and paychecks, and I particularly enjoyed the moral implications of all this carnage being filtered through the lens of capitalism. Jake and Remy keep reiterating – almost as a self-defense reflex – that “a job’s a job,” but Remy quickly learns that as an agency customer, things no longer look so simple. The same losers he used to laugh at? Well, now he’s one of them, scrambling through the garbage in a bid to save his life. And as Jake chases his former partner, he can’t help but reevaluate his lot in life.
Given the chemistry we see, during their few scenes together, I really wish that Repo Men had taken some more time to explore Remy and Jake’s friendship. To allow Law and Whitaker some breathing room to mold some more complicated characters. As it stands here, they feel like cardboard cutouts, subservient to the larger story threads. A third act romance, too, between Remy and a fellow scavenger is never given the screen time to take flight. But if Repo Men falls a little short as a character study, it takes up residence in my mind alongside the likes of A.I. and Blade Runner (this week’s selection for the Techland Screening Room) as a futuristic hellscape that invites introspection. If A.I. questioned the selfishness of love, and Blade Runner toyed with our preconceptions about artificial intelligence, then Repo Men asks us to consider: What happens when the corporations claim ownership over our very bodies? It’s indentured servitude dressed up like free market principles.
And if those at every rung of the corporate ladder believes that a job’s just a job – to be completed without question or debate – then we are all royally screwed as a species.
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