They’re selling Small Engine Repair as the new movie about toxic masculinity. It is that, but I think that’s the wrong way to approach it, should you find yourself taking it in at either the AMC theater at Parks Mall or Movie Tavern Hulen this weekend. The better way to see it is as a stage play that has been effectively translated to film. I wish I saw more movies like this.
Playwright John Pollono is the writer-director here, and he portrays Frank Romanowski, who runs a repair shop for lawnmowers and other small motor-powered devices in Manchester, N.H. He’s an ex-convict with a daughter named Crystal (Ciara Bravo), who has been accepted early to UCLA. He’s managed to stay out of prison for her, even though every time he goes out drinking with his buddies Swaino and Packie (Jon Bernthal and Shea Whigham), it ends in a bar fight. One evening, he invites the guys over to his shop for a night of steaks, expensive Scotch, and MMA on pay-per-view. They don’t know that this gathering is a trap for one of Crystal’s high-school friends, a powerful Boston lawyer’s son (Spencer House) and a drug dealer who has slut-shamed her on Instagram after she was unwise enough to sext him naked pictures. Now she’s lying in a coma after a suicide attempt, and Frank wants to spill this kid’s blue blood all over the floor of his garage.
Pollono’s script is keen, if you can stomach all the casual racism, sexism, and homophobia flying around. (I went to an all-boys school, so I’m well used to it.) Packie is the butt of much of this as the physically smallest of the three, but when a bartender tries to restrain him during a brawl, he takes a chunk out of the guy’s arm with his teeth. There’s violence in the air every time these guys gather, especially when Swaino badmouths Frank’s ex-wife (Jordana Spiro) — who is a legitimately terrible parent — and dares him to bash in his head. Pollono has a good ear, not just for this, but also for the denigration that comes with male bonding, especially when Packie recalls their shared childhood experience of all being beaten by their dads after the Red Sox’s epic loss in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. It’s a traumatic story, and Packie can’t stop laughing as he tells it.
Pollono’s direction isn’t schematic and is only rarely stagy. My quarrel with it is that he makes a rookie mistake with the flashback sequences — it’s usually more dramatic to keep the camera on the actor when he tells about the thing that once happened to him. Just because you can show it doesn’t mean you necessarily should. However, this is a minor flaw and doesn’t impede the flow of the story.
Whigham is good as always and the director (who has a recurring role on TV’s This Is Us) fits in well with his more seasoned fellow actors as a man whose anger issues are given the ultimate stress test. Still, it’s Bernthal who walks away with the acting honors here. This short, powerfully built actor has showcased his fighting skills on TV’s The Walking Dead and The Punisher, but the 44-year-old D.C. native has the goods even in roles that don’t require him to fight, like the sensitive English teacher in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the holdup man in Baby Driver, and Lee Iacocca in Ford v Ferrari. Here he’s reprising a role that he originated on the stage 10 years ago, and he’s somehow reassuring even while playing a character who’s frequently out of control, especially in a climactic scene when he lays out a possible compromise solution that allows everyone to walk away.
In the end, Small Engine Repair succeeds by keeping its ambitions in check. Who needs explosions, shootouts, or plot twists galore to make a good thriller? What this movie has is three guys who have another guy tied up, guys with criminal histories that fall well short of the step they’re considering taking. They can’t help but wonder whether they’re doing the right thing. Can they avoid the consequences of letting this rich bastard walk, or the consequences of killing him? It’s enough to hang a play or a film on, when it’s done with this kind of skill.
Small Engine Repair
Starring John Pollono, Jon Bernthal, and Shea Whigham. Written and directed by John Pollono, based on his own play. Rated R.