Category Archives: Director Series: Alex Cox

Walker (1987)

William Walker was a freewheeling filibuster of a distinct class. Alex Cox’s biopic Walker – branded A TRUE STORY at the outset – features Ed Harris in the title role of the American adventurer whose ideals and morals become muddled. Journeying to Nicaragua in the 1850s, Walker and his band have democracy as their glorious intention. What happens, of course, is something else entirely, and Walker comes to resemble more of a tyrant than anything else.

First, though – wait, was that a helicopter? And a computer? Isn’t this 1850? It becomes increasingly clear throughout Walker that Cox has little regard for historical accuracy, and blatant anachronisms like Walker on the cover of Time and Newsweek pop up all over the place. Cox’s sense of humor is very often visual, as seen again and again in the visual gags running through his first feature Repo Man, and in Walker the intentional inaccuracies certainly do provide laughs. But they have a point, too, and that’s to draw a parallel between Walker’s crazed methods in Nicaragua in the 1850s and American efforts in Latin and South America in the late 1980s.

Whether you enjoy this political narrative bent or not is probably dependent on your own political views. Walker didn’t fare well at the box office upon release in 1987, and Cox never returned to studio filmmaking again. While it doesn’t necessarily come across as heavy-handed, the comparison and damnation of American foreign policy is poured on pretty thick.

Rudy Wurlitzer writes William Walker beautifully, though, and the contrast from Walker to each man in Walker’s miscreant band of somehow-loyal followers is also well done. Straight off the bat the gang – for they certainly could be called no more than a gang – are shown to be unable to even comprehend Walker’s orders that violence should stop and common laws of hygiene be adhered to. “What’s hygiene?” one man asks just before the gang erupt into a murdering spree in the middle of a village. There’s some of the Glanton Gang from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian in here, making Ed Harris’s Walker the indomitable Judge Holden, the terrifying hawker of war and death.

Soon, though the men latch onto Walker’s lofty ideals more as an excuse for violence than anything else, the “true north” of Walker’s vision begins to stray. “Some of the men are confused as to just what it is we’re fighting for,” one man confides in him. “I know and they know that the liberals are our friends and the conservatives are our enemies…but to tell you the truth, sir, I can’t tell them apart. They all seem the same to me.”

“That is no concern of yours, nor of the men,” Walker advises. “All you have to remember is that our cause is a righteous one.” Later, Walker dictates to another man trodding in his footsteps that the ends justify the means. The man tiptoes after Walker as the landscape around them seems drier and drier. “What are the ends?” he asks, to which Walker immediately replies, “I can’t remember.”

So again, the political aspect will either heighten your appreciation of Walker or it very well may sour it, depending on whether you find Cox to be earnest or overbearing in the depth of his unsubtle satire. I submit that the character of William Walker alone, shorn of all the directorial “slight of hand” on Cox’s part, is one that can’t be ignored.  “Clearly,” as another character remarks, “this is no ordinary asshole.”

Sid and Nancy (1986)

There’s a whole lot of Sid and Nancy that’s impossibly dark and depressing. The Sex Pistols bassist and his volatile girlfriend were not ones to live slow and boring, preferring hard drugs and long nights and loud music. The love was intense and it was brief, flaring exponentially like one of those dying superstars, forced to quit after burning too bright for too many hours. The end isn’t pretty, and it’s the only end that such a relationship could come to.

Alex Cox made Sid and Nancy almost immediately after his debut feature Repo Man, but there’s a clear jump in maturity from one film to the next. Sure, actors like Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb help; Webb is unfathomably childish, as the character should be, and Oldman is just amazing as the pencil-thin Sid Vicious. But Cox is the real star here, as he manages to make an extremely affecting portrait of two lovers out of the all-too-recent shards of their former lives.

The Sex Pistols disbanded after their US tour, leaving Sid and Nancy to fend for themselves and scrape by on Sid’s solo act. They are both extremely unhealthy, both in body and in mind, and the drugs they love begin to take hold of their affairs more and more. They stay in their room more and more, until the final scenes which are set entirely in the bedroom. Neither Sid nor Nancy seem able to leave that room, and it’s Nancy who never does. Her death – though surrounded by mystery in the actual news media – is an accident at the hands of strung-out Sid himself. Nancy’s life in the film up until this point is pathetic and difficult to watch, but her pitiful fate is quite nearly sickening.

Somehow, though, despite long stretches of despair and horrific moments like the death of Nancy, Sid and Nancy captures something else that the punk movement managed to as well. The Sex Pistols and their fans are hard-living, hard-drinking, leather-jacketed hoodlums who swear at their grandmothers and kick people in the face at their shows with boots on – but they have a good-natured humor about them at times, rolling around in the rain and parading down the street in their underwear. Alex Cox nails this humor, and amidst the deep dark of the majority of the film an important light peeks through again and again.

A smash cut of Sid walking into one pub and suddenly staggering out of another is a great example, as it gives a snapshot of his life in a half-second switch of the camera. Another sequence later shows Sid onstage singing to a crowd of well-dressed elderly white people who seem to love the metal-clad Sid Vicious – until he pulls out a pistol and murders everyone in the auditorium. Is this a dream? Is this some kind of vision Sid has of himself or of his place in society, a la Bronson or Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll? Whatever it is, it’s gleeful and jarring alongside the bedridden scenes that make up most of Sid and Nancy.

The best of these moments both come in New York City. The first is when Sid and Nancy happen across a kid being bullied and Sid tells the bullies off. “Who the hell do you think you are?” they sneer. “Sid Vicious,” Sid says, and the kids immediately scatter as if the name belonged to a Clint Eastwood drifter of the Old West. The second comes at the very end, when Sid walks past three kids dancing to hip hop. They tell him to dance with them, he says he ain’t gonna dance around with no kids – but he does. Nancy is passed but he hasn’t forgotten her, as if he ever could, and somehow all of this boils down to Sid Vicious dancing with a few kids in the middle of nowhere. This is the spirit that Cox injects into the bleakness of Sid and Nancy, and it’s what makes the film so effective in the end.

Repo Man (1984)

It’s no small miracle that Alex Cox’s Repo Man is even on anyone’s radar today, nevermind the fact that the weird little movie effectively jumpstarted the director’s entire career. It’s very possible that Repo Man could have slipped into obscurity and dragged Cox into the abyss along with it. There would be no late-night cult showings and, more shockingly, there would be no Alex Cox Director Series to presently grace your computer screen. Civilization would crumble beneath our feet and the decimated dregs of humanity would soon resort to cannibalism.

So be thankful that we have the junky, punky Los Angeles peopled by Emilio Estevez’s rookie repossessor Otto and Harry Dean Stanton’s Obi-Wan-esque speed addict Bud. The world of Repo Man is still freshly original, even today, still hilariously unique — a world where the beer is labeled BEER and the food FOOD, where repo agents are just car thieves that make a point of wearing seatbelts. Otto’s journey is one that goes round and round in circles, and the only semblance of plot in the film stems from a ’64 Chevy Malibu with some really hot contents in the trunk.

As noted by Roger Ebert in his original review, Repo Man follows none of the rules – there are simply no other movies about punk repo kids and radioactive aliens in Los Angeles. Detectives and secret agents pulled in for one last mission? Got ’em. Unlikely squirts finding the courage to overcome bully corporations? Yep. Repo Man, on the other hand, is damn near impossible to categorize. “It happens sometimes,” notes an investigator about a smoking bubbling puddle that used to be an upright policeman. “People just explode.” If these are the rules that Repo Man plays by, then the rules don’t matter much.

Cox was twenty-nine years old when he filmed Repo Man. He had a much larger budget than he’d originally envisioned and full control over the casting of the film, thanks to a measure of faith by Hollywood studio executives that seems outlandish today. It opened quietly and was pulled from theaters after a weeklong run. The soundtrack, though, chock full of “new” American punk, made a smallish comeback in the following months, prompting an eventual rerelease of Repo Man at a theater in New York City. From there, the film grew to the cult status it enjoys today.

And this still means that Repo Man has not had nearly the effect it should have — it could have — on modern cinema. Again, Cox’s career took off in a good direction as Repo Man gained traction — he went on to get the directing gig for Sid and Nancy in 1986, a movie which was well-received, followed by Walker with Ed Harris in 1987. Our Director Series takes proper looks at those later efforts, but suffice it to say that they’re quite different from this debut. Repo Man is important because it taps into and depicts a subculture so perfectly well. The pacing is so inviting and the tone so uncondescending as to bring nearly anyone along for the ride, in spite of the weirdo silliness unfolding before your eyes.

Simply put: we should have more movies like Repo Man. That silliness becomes a battle cry, becomes the entire world of the film, becomes something that challenges us to accept it rather than pining for our approval with tired gimmicks or recognizable characters. Once we accept the challenge we’re essentially in the car with the doors locked, doing 60 down the L.A. River. It helps that Repo Man is insanely quotable and that the running gags are so beautifully timed. What we might expect to be a sex scene is put on hold when Otto sits up straight in bed and says, politely: “Excuse me while I fold my pants.” Which he does.

So, in honor of Repo Man, one of the leanest and meanest and most straight-up fun director debuts in modern cinema: Let’s go get sushi and not pay!