Friday, December 16, 2011

Repo Men -- employment, identity and medical responsibility

Director: Miguel Sapochnik, 2010. (R)

“My job is simple. Can't pay for the car, the bank takes it back. Can’t pay for your house, the bank takes it back. Can’t pay for your liver, well that’s where I come in.” Remy (Jude Law, Sherlock Holmes), the protagonist, narrates this voice-over at the start of the film. He is one of the repo men.

Set in a bleak future where technology has produced numerous artiforgs, artificial organs to replace those in the body that are worn out or damaged. But control and sale of these artiforgs belongs to a company known only as “The Union” that seems to be above the law. The sale of organs to needy recipients is smooth and sleek, orchestrated by the morally defunct Frank (Live Schreiber, The Manchurian Candidate). But when the payments stop because the recipient can no longer afford it, they are given only a 90-day grace period before the repo men are sent to retrieve the artiforg, regardless of cost to the current user.

The opening scene sets the tone, as we see Remy repossess a liver from an unhappy man. Gory and shocking, Remy dons gloves and his iPod to jam out while he jimmies out the liver, leaving the unconscious man to twitch and die on the floor. Life has its price, and this man could not make the payment.

One of the themes revolves around the job. Remy’s partner Jake (Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland) quips repeatedly, “A job is a job.” But later, after Remy’s eyes are opened, he understands more and comments, “At the end, a job is not just a job, it is who you are, and if you wanna change who you are, you have to change what you do.”

Repo Men posits, therefore, that identity is wrapped up in employment. You are what you do. Is this true? Does our job define us? We often describe ourselves by our jobs. When asked, “Who are you?” we respond with, “I am a doctor” or an engineer or manager or whatever. But identity is never defined in this way in the Bible. We are so much more than what we do. Our job will likely change over time, through our careers, but we remain the same person. If our job defined us, then we would be lacking if we were laid off or fired, as Remy finds out.

We are defined instead by our nature and by our relationships. Humans are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), uniquely endowed with the immaterial element of soul/spirit that forms personality. And our identity is further refined by our relationships, with each other and with God. Our foremost and most vital relationship is with God through Jesus Christ. When we discover this through faith, we find we are brought into his wonderful family, becoming children of God (Jn. 1:12).

Frank spells out the financial balance sheet to Remy and Jake. The Union does not want to sell artiforgs to people who can pay outright. Rather, they want to sell to those who can only barely afford them, paying the 20% interest and then repossessing when they default on the payments. In that case, they can reuse or resell these organs to new Johns and make more money. They are loan sharks of a sort, preying on the helpless.

Such usury is unjust, an example of social injustice that is prevalent today. God spoke about this through Moses in the Old Testament: ““If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest” (Exod. 22:25). Although not espousing socialism or even communism, this is a far cry from the heartless capitalism that looks to profit from other’s pain.

Remy’s job drives his wife away, and she takes his son with her. When his last job backfires literally, Remy finds himself in a hospital bed with a new artiforg heart. He is now in debt to the company, like the poor victims he chased and killed. With a new heart, he discovers a truth about these victims: they all had names and were human! This not-so-subtle plot point, turns the movie and now Remy no longer has the heart to do his job. It does not take long before he is delinquent on his bill, and Frank sends repo men after him.

The second half of the film, then, becomes a standard chase movie. Remy teams up with a soulful singer (Alice Braga) who is virtually all artiforg, and together they find themselves on the run from The Union. Eventually, and predictably, Frank sends Jake to hunt and kill his friend.

There are some well-choreographed and quite bloody action sequences but their outcome is never in doubt. But Sapochnik throws a curve ball with a final twist that some might see coming and that echoes other sci-fi movies.

Repo Men takes an intriguing concept and fails to really explore the ethical questions. It uses it as a vehicle for a routine action thriller. But it does leave us asking the question, what is society’s responsibility when it comes to medical attention, especially for replacement of organs? Is it right to leave it to the free-trade economy, such as in the USA, to determine who can and who can’t get a new kidney or artificial knee? In that case, the poor will never be able to afford such health care options. But is it better to resort to a socialist scheme where all have the same level of treatment options available, such as in Europe? In some of those countries, citizens have taken out private insurance to get their replacement organs because the national health system was taking too long. Once again, those who could afford it are able to gain, those that can’t have to wait and maybe die before getting their chance.

Ultimately, Repo Men fails to provide answers. But then, the questions are too complex and political for any easy answers. Raising the question may be enough for now. If you leave this movie thinking about such questions rather than about the gore-fest, it would have been worthwhile.

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs

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