With 10 minutes to go, I was sure Small Engine Repair was going to be one of my favourite movies of the year. A breakdown of masculinity disguised as a revenge thriller, the film ruminates on the way men repeatedly fail the women around them and exposes their shortcomings in gripping, funny, and terrifying fashion. It’s an actor’s dream, filled with complex character beats and stirring monologues. It’s not afraid to lay bare its characters’ worst impulses, but it is never judgmental. It tackles a myriad of themes, including misogyny, friendship, sexual exploitation, and internet culture, but for the most part manages to bring those together in a compelling, unique way.
But 10 minutes later, I was left wondering how long it had been since I had seen a film that shit the bed with the ending quite as badly as this one.
In its best moments, Small Engine Repair – written and directed by John Pollono, and based on his play of the same name – crackles with tension, exploring its themes through a hyper-masculine lens of regret, failure, and violence. But in its final moments, what sets out to be a searing and authentic reflection on how dangerous masculinity can be sputters out into a farce that reinforces the very thing the film apparently seeks to critique.
For all its complicated themes, the premise of Small Engine Repair is fairly simple. After a rough falling out a few months earlier, Frank (John Pollono) invites his old friends Swaino (Jon Bernthal) and Packie (Shea Whigham) to his auto repair shop under mysterious circumstances. Swaino is a swaggering, crude ladies man, Packie is the thoughtful one of the bunch, and Frank is an ex-con with a 17-year-old daughter named Crystal (Ciara Bravo), constantly trying to atone for his past mistakes. When preppy college student Chad (Spencer House) crashes the party, Frank’s vengeful reasons for getting the gang back together become startlingly clear.
While the play starts with the friends’ reunion, the film’s opening scenes start a few months before that night, showing the audience the events that led to the falling out. In a side effect that often befalls play-to-film adaptations, these scenes feel a bit haphazardly stitched together, a clumsy way to introduce some characters who will be discussed later. The script doesn’t really find its footing until the three friends reconvene at the garage, but Pollono’s direction prior to that does manage to immerse the viewer fully into the story, particularly when it comes to the trio at the film’s centre.
There’s a deep intimacy to the relationship between Frank, Swaino, and Packie, but their shared closeness has a propensity to turn sour, breeding resentment and often violence. One of Small Engine Repair’s real strengths is perhaps how deeply it understands that connection – intimacy and violence – and how well Pollono portrays that on screen. The energy between the three men can turn from jovial to savage in a matter of seconds, and the way that dynamic is reflected through the camera work ratchets up an unease that keeps the audience poised for an attack at any moment. During a bar brawl at the beginning of the film, Swaino delivers a stinging slap to Packie’s face, but immediately follows it up with whispered apologies and assurances. The brawl worsens, the shaky camera zeroing in not just on punches, but the build up. Disputes are solved by standing nose-to-nose, grabbing each other by the face in fits of rage, and going in for the kill. With these men, they’re almost never closer than when they’re hurting each other.
The opposite is true for Chad, the college student who Frank invites to the reunion to sell the trio some drugs. Chad, with his Ralph Lauren polo and his daddy-bought Mercedes, is a far cry from the flannels and work boots of these men, but he eventually joins in on the night of debauchery. Social media has been on the periphery of the story up until this point, but here, Pollono explicitly comments on the detached nature of the relationships we form through the internet, particularly when it comes to sex. There’s a cruel indifference to the way Chad speaks about his exploits that sets him further apart from these men. Even the lascivious Swaino – who regails his friends with tales of wild sex and makes no secret of his crude view of women – is a little perturbed by the callous way Chad speaks about the aftermath of one of his online escapades. But neither he nor the more morally upright Packie complain when Chad shows them pictures of a girl that she sent in confidence, and neither one cares enough to combat him – that is, until the reason for Frank’s mysterious midnight soiree becomes clear.
Through the script and direction, Pollono takes care to emphasise the distinction between Frank, Swaino, and Packie’s fiery violence and Chad’s cold, more manipulative measures, but the generational difference is less interesting than the focus on who that fire comes out to protect. The film’s observation of the callous nature of sex in the age of the internet neatly morphs into a commentary on the innate hypocrisy of men who will admonish a strange woman for private sexual exploits turned public, but change their tune when the revenge porn hits a little too close to home. It’s easy to revel in the trio’s fury as Chad’s sins come to light, but just as easy to forget that minutes before, Swaino and Packie were more than happy to look at those private pictures on Chad’s phone, laughing as they did. Their mistakes may not rise to the same level, but it’s refreshing to see a film – directed and written by a man – point out these failures without coming across as didactic or preachy.
Which is why the end is so goddamn disappointing. Without giving too much away, not only is the moment blatantly homophobic – the film tries to skirt around this by having one character point out when other characters are being homophobic at different points throughout the film – but it’s played for laughs in a way that’s completely incongruous with the rest of the film. Most of Small Engine Repair’s critiques are melded into the plot of a revenge thriller with ease, but this half-baked critique of homophobia feels shoe-horned in and weaponized to embarrass a character instead of to subtly point out a social ill.
Personally, it would be difficult to watch Small Engine Repair a second time knowing what awaits at the end, but it might be worth it for a stand-out few performances. Whigham is sweet and amusing as Packie, but Bernthal and Pollono steal the show as Swaino and Frank. Bernthal, as always, is exceedingly fun to watch, chewing up the scenery as viscously as he chews on the end of a cigarette. He’s all kinetic energy, body taut and ready to pounce at any moment with a punch or a pick-up line.
Where Bernthal is showy, Pollono is restrained. He has his own moments of violent propulsion and switches his body language from mild to menacing on a dime, but his eyes hold a certain tenderness that lend a surplus of empathy to a very complicated man. Both actors hold that space for empathy, and when they go head to head in one of the film’s most vulnerable scenes, they perfectly capture the energy of two emotionally defenseless men who would rather be anything but.
With such great performances and a potentially astute, subtle critique baked into a riveting narrative, it’s upsetting to watch Small Engine Repair swirl it all down the drain at the end. We ended up with 95% mature social thriller – one that considers the psyche of a society that invokes the names of its mothers, sisters, and daughters in the name of sexual violence, instead of treating every woman as a human being regardless of their relation status – and 5% immature buffoonery.
Small Engine Repair is out in cinemas on September 10th
by Sammie Purcell
Sammie is a news writer for Reporter Newspapers in Georgia, covering the communities of Brookhaven and Dunwoody in metro-Atlanta. She has previously written about film and television for publications such as Boston University News Service and Oz Magazine, and holds a Masters in Journalism from Boston University. For more fun insights about movies, life, or Florence Pugh’s character-defining turn as Amy in 2019’s Little Women, you can follow her on twitter @sammie_purcell8