UK / Ireland, 2006
Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 09 November 2006
Source 35mm print
Features: The Times BFI 50th London Film Festival
The British fascination with all things American reaches a new peak with this micro- budget Irish feature from first time director Niall Heery. Wearing his influences on his sleeve, Heery has transported the ethos and atmosphere of independent American cinema and outlaw country music to backwoods Northern Ireland, creating a film which is slavishly imitative but still subtly charming.
Taking it’s title from a Tom Russell song, Small Engine Repair tracks the fortunes of two small-town losers: Iain Glen’s meek, well meaning Doug, an aspiring country singer, and his best friend Bill, played with quiet despair by Steven Macintosh. When their old drinking buddy Burley rolls into town after a stretch in prison, throwing his weight around and generally disturbing the peace, Doug’s directionless existence is thrown into disarray: his girlfriend leaves him, taking the house, and he’s forced to move into Bill’s small engine garage. But in the depths of despair he turns to his music, spinning his misery into art, gaining a new creative confidence.
Small Engine Repair shouldn’t work. It’s loose and directionless, the plot is clumsy and obvious, the endless cribbing from superior films (Tender Mercies, Trees Lounge, Paul Schrader’s Affliction) quickly starts to grate. The script barely hangs together, repeatedly fumbling the big emotional moments. There’s a great alt. country soundtrack with highlights from John Prine and Smog, but Doug’s own songs pale in comparison, and Iain Glen’s no vocalist. But somehow the film keeps its head above water, thanks largely to some beautiful location photography, a sly, deprecating wit, and a brace of warm, self-effacing performances.
As Doug, Iain Glen exudes a kind of heartsick weltschmertz, a man who’s been kicked around and spat on, and never once complained. Heery has expressed his intention to make Small Engine Repair a visual, narrative interpretation of a great country song, and that ambition finds focus in the character of Doug. His gradual awakening, both to his own strengths and flaws and to the traitorous nature of others, is skilfully handled, a subtle progression from rundown loser to tentatively confident star in the making. Indeed, his personal journey is far more convincing than his professional one: Doug’s rise to local fame, on the back of one song and one gig, is slightly incredible, a wish fulfilment fantasy at odds with the pragmatic tone of the film.
The rest of the cast are equally persuasive: as Bill, Steven Macdonald is the conflicted heart of the film, living with the knowledge of his own failure as a businessman, a father and a friend, eager to see Doug make it but frustrated and jealous when he does. Stuart Graham’s Burley is the most forceful character, and although his schizophrenic nature is rather bluntly handled the actor still manages to exude a genuine sense of threat and unpredictability. The scenes where he confronts Doug about the time he spent in prison (Doug witnessed his hit-and-run crime, and reported it) are riveting, Graham’s snarling face filling the screen.
Small Engine Repair could have been a great film, with a little more attention paid to the screenplay. Heery seems unwilling to really push his characters, to give them the emotional highs and lows that would have brought the story to life. That said, the film is never less than entertaining, and it does achieve moments of real charm and sweetness, however brief. A solid debut from a director who must, and almost certainly will do better.