A mini-masterpiece of toxic masculinity, anger management issues, and friends and family “hanging from the lowest rung on the lower-middle-class ladder” as one character wryly puts it, Small Engine Repair positively crackles like a banked fire just waiting to erupt into a nightmarish conflagration that threatens to incinerate everything that’s come before. And “before” is absolutely le mot juste, because Pollono, adapting from his own off-Broadway play, throws in a Molotov cocktail of a third-act emotional wallop that will leave you quivering in your seat and lodge itself in your psyche for days after the final credits roll.
In the interest of preserving that shocking, unheralded revelation, there’ll be no spoilers in this review, which, however, means I’m going to have to completely omit discussing a sizable – and ultimately the most important – portion of the film. Bear with me, please. Thanks to Pollono, I’ve recently had my mind blown out the back of my head … and that’s a very good thing, despite the horror of it all.
The director stars as Frank Romanowski, the owner of the titular shop, being released from prison in the rustier-than-Rust Belt township of Manchester, New Hampshire. Frank’s ability to escalate any perceived slight against himself or his family into brutal beatdowns is his Achilles’ heel and probably why he was in the big house in the first place, but the exact reason remains unexplained. Returning home to reunite with his beloved daughter, Crystal (Bravo), whom he last saw as a toddler, we see him patching a hole in the kitchen wall roughly the size of his mammoth fist. That’s one of the first of many moments that serve to ratchet up the film’s teetering sense of uneasy suspense, and Frank’s inability to control his emotions lies at the bloody, beating heart of the film. Crystal’s alcoholic mother, Karen (Spiro), essentially skipped out on father and daughter long ago, only showing up here to boozily berate Frank, verbally emasculating him whenever the chance arrives.
Frank’s only real connection to his former life comes from his lifelong friends, like the perceived ladies’ man Swaino (Bernthal, late of The Walking Dead) who helped to care for little Crystal while Frank was in the pen. Then there’s Packie (Whigham, nabbing the best role in the film and inhabiting the character body and soul), who at first comes across as a shy misfit falling on several different spectrum disorders but turns out to be the smartest (albeit least confident) of the three. He’s the film’s conscience, and when The Plot Point That Cannot Be Named arrives, his importance to and love for the short-fused Frank plays a key role. He’s also well-skilled in using social media, a semi-gag that’s played off of Swaino’s near-total disconnect with this new age of smartphones, apps, and the creepy cultural power of Facebook, Instagram, and the like.
All three are rough around the edges – and tangled up in the knotty question of what it means to be a man in 21st century America – and so Frank throws a buddies-for-life party at his ragtag shop, complete with plenty of high-dollar scotch, and, for reason I dare not say, invites along a strapping fraternity bro/drug dealer named Chad (House, looking every bit the spoiled rich scion to his father’s famed law firm) to supply the gang with some molly. The sheer weirdness of even imagining this misbegotten trio on ecstasy’s offshoot is enough to fuel wild speculation, but it’s just about then when things abruptly go from good-natured, fast-friends brinkmanship and braggadocio to a sucker-punched hell when Frank cold-cocks Chad with a hefty-looking pipe wrench. Why? The answer will leave viewers reeling.
In flashback, we see these three fuckups and how they got that way. Unsurprisingly but oddly touching all the same, it turns out to be the sins of the fathers, by way of alcoholic beatings and a total absence of paternal love. Imagine The Three Stooges with all the humor sucked out and scripted by Paul Schrader and you’re halfway there. Small Engine Repair is a real American horror story, skillfully shot, perfectly cast and acted, and carrying a sorrowful message that resonates with brutal truth.
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