Alex Cox Box Set

By Rob McCrae

highway-patrolman-alex-cox.jpgHighway Patrolman, 1991

The BFI's new releases of the British director's work offer another chance to engage with a unique visionary

“I turned down the opportunity to direct The Three Amigos,” Alex Cox once said. “And made Straight to Hell instead.” Eschewing the chance to work with Steve Martin for his own cinematic, singular vision means Cox can celebrate his legacy defined by his choices. The release of two new DVDs reminds us of his mercurial direction and how by making cult classic Repo Man he introduced Emilio Estevez to the silver screen.

Sharing the same law school as Tony Blair didn’t impede Cox from pursuing artistic paths later studying at UCLA and making first film Edge City/Sleep is For Sissies in 1980. He even convinced legendary British director Nicholas Roeg to come to the premiere at the NFT after finding his name in the phone book. Cox was, however, soon called back down to earth when he subsequently penned a number of scripts that were never picked up, including The Hot Club loosely described as a comedy about nuclear blast veterans.

straight-to-hell-alex-cox.jpgStraight to Hell, 1987

Repo Man was born out of Cox’s own horror stories of living in the Los Angeles basin and his neighbour who repossessed cars for a living. It would provide the springboard for Cox’s career and became an underground hit, forming the template for his future canon by offering trenchant narratives that commented as much on the state of society as they did providing elegant tracts of entertainment. Repo Man, for instance, deals with the impending possibility of nuclear war, opinions that were saturating the news at the time but were rarely dealt with on film. Other work like Highway Patrolman brilliantly deconstructs the work of a policeman sent to guard a deserted highway and how his diligence wanes at the whim of the corrupt system he works under. If Cox wasn’t making a direct point then the allusion was always there, questioning the authorities that we acquiesce to under the assumption that our best interests were at heart.

Part of Cox’s cinematic appeal is his appetite for the surreal and this may in turn be what undid him on his last film, Revengers Tragedy, a Jacobean tragedy mired by a low budget. Far better to travel back to more imperious work like Three Businessmen that pays homage to Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, mooring its story on three men who meet and wax disparately on a host of different topics. Equally Death and the Compass escapes into the febrile corners of Cox’s mind to create a stunning palette of images set in a future metropolis. Based on the short story by Jorge Luis Borges it rearranges themes from the occult to mysterious murders to the ethereal existence of crime lord Red Scarlech and a whole plethora of linked scenes that trail like iridescent glitter throughout.


The stand-out in the Cox oeuvre is Straight to Hell, a story that centres on a crew of musicians in his lawless celebration of the spaghetti western. Strapped to the cinematic influence of Sergio Leone it focuses on a team of hit men (led by Joe Strummer) who oversleep on a big job and fear reprisals from their pugnacious leader (Jim Jarmusch). They pull off a bank job and then set off into the desert with one of the gang’s pregnant girlfriends (Courtney Love) making it as far as a ghost town inhabited by a debauched set of gun crazy murderers (led by none other than The Pogues). Cox pulls this set of characters into his sand and sawdust world creating episodes that are both bizarre and riveting held throughout by the charismatic Strummer.

“In my films all the characters are alienated” Cox says. Cops, criminals, kids, the people who live and breathe on his world are pariahs in the world and spend time delineating their lives while calling to question anything considered normal. Naturally with such a running theme to his characters it’s easy to pigeon hole Cox as similarly exiled as a filmmaker. He makes films that drift into the chthonic and the fantastic but that are always rendered watchable by his narrative eye. His outsiders are always fighting the world convinced of their status, their motives and what they’re striving for regardless of whether anyone understands them or not. He calls Kurosawa his favourite director based on his penchant for “epic despair” but his own films are so different to this. They thrive on finding a chink in the human condition and exploring it to create work of both intelligence and beauty.

Rob McCrae is a freelance writer.