Ruth Barton
Trinity College Dublin

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Small Engine Repair (2007)

Directed and Written by Niall Heery

Principal Cast: Iain Glen, Steven Mackintosh and Laurence Kinlan.

Produced by Tristan Orphen-Lynch, Dominic Wright (Subotica Films)

In the rush to embrace what seems to be a new flowering of Irish art cinema, the film that has proved most resistant to categorisation is debut-feature director, Niall Heery’s, 2007 release, Small Engine Repair.

With its quirky title and themes of alienation and displacement, Small Engine Repair most recalls American ‘indie’ filmmaking, to which it makes a number of overt references. The narrative concerns a group of men who live in an unidentified Irish locale where the chief economic activity is logging. One of the group, Burley (Stuart Graham), is released from gaol where he did time for a hit-and-run accident that resulted in the death of another of their friends’ children. Burley returns to avenge himself on the anonymous tip-off that landed him in gaol and is convinced that it came from within his circle. Doug (Iain Glen) dreams of becoming a Country singer though he is filled with self-doubt and the expectation of failure. Driving a pick-up with the bumper sticker reading HONK IF YOU’RE LONELY! (itself the title of a country song), he seeks less to transcend his situation as to share his experience with other lost souls. Conversations between the men return over and again to the question of whether they should leave, with the film strongly suggesting that they stay because they are afraid of going.

One of the most disorienting features of Small Engine Repair is its lack of any specific indicators as to setting. In fact, Heery filmed in Northern Ireland, as much to take advantage of tax breaks as for narrative considerations and in interview (Film Ireland, July/August, 2007, pp. 16-18) the director has said that he intended the setting to be somewhere in the Irish midlands.

Clues to location that might otherwise be gleaned from accent are frustrated by Iain Glen’s obtrusive English speech patterns while rising star, Laurence Kinlan, who plays the mildly rebellious youngster, Tony, delivers his lines as if his character were from Dublin. More than this, the film appropriates much of the iconography of the American mid-West. The men wear lumberjack shirts, drive beat-up cars, live in trailers and meet for social exchanges in a saloon-style bar. Visual references to John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) and Cimino’s The Deerhunter (1978) further suggest that the film takes place in some psychological in-between space, its boundaries dictated by the men’s imagination.

What most interests me about the film is its appropriation of American country (and Western) culture and, specifically, American country music, as a medium for exploring issues of masculine alienation and transgression. In utilising this device, Small Engine Repair aligns itself with a number of films that speak similarly of male anomie. I would further like to suggest that the appropriation of this form of American culture is connected to Ireland’s own emigration culture and that it comes to substitute for the journey that these male characters will not physically take. While much critical writing has focused on narratives of exodus and arrival, less attention has been paid to those characters who, for one reason or another, failed to emigrate. In film, this condition has often been expressed visually and spatially as much as through straightforward narrative devices. Emigration is the unspoken of these narratives, its existence seeping through in their soundtracks and lurking behind the recurrent iconography of saloon type pubs bearing names such as The Frontier and The Hideout.

The other factor that we need to remember in any discussion of American country music is that its own roots are partially to be found in Irish music that travelled with the earlier emigrants, so that there is sense of cultural connectedness between the two musical forms that reflects on the cultural connectedness between the two countries.

Think back to that often-overlooked early excursion into indigenous Irish filmmaking, Peter Ormrod’s Eat the Peach(1986). In an establishing sequence, its two central characters, Vinnie (Stephen Brennan) and Arthur (Eamon Morrissey) head for the pub with their friend, Bunzo (Takashi Kawahara) on hearing that, due to a global economic downturn, their employer, a Japanese industrial plant, is closing down. As they sit in silence nursing their pints, we hear the sounds of Country music on the soundtrack; this is soon revealed to come from the television screen where a group is performing. An edit takes us into the room next door where local performers are playing. Little else needs to be put into words, with the music filling in for the unsaid. If country music offers itself as a vehicle for emotions that are otherwise unspeakable, the same could be very well be said about the articulation of male sentiment in Irish society and it is no coincidence that this scene ends with a fight, the alternative outlet for emotional expression.

The Frontier Bar that provides the setting for much of the film’s action is a tribute to rural Ireland’s love affair with Country music, with its décor and iconography insisting that this is a little bit of America in the Irish midlands. This substitution of Americana for Irishness further suggests a lack within the home culture, one that can be filled by the more desirable other.

This setting is repeated throughout these narratives. The midlands are the least represented space of the Irish landscape, offering neither the romantic vistas of the West, the degraded colonialism or Celtic Tiger chic of Dublin. They are a liminal space whose in-betweeness reflects the characters’ own psychological liminality — being neither here nor there. The film makes much of the emptiness of the boglands, a landscape that equally connotes ancientness and preservation, a layering of history lying beneath the transient everyday.

Soon after the sequence just described, Vinnie returns to The Frontier where he demands to see his favourite video,Roustabout (John Rich 1964), a film that is so familiar to the habitués that Arthur can parrot the dialogue and mimic the actions as they are played out. In this, Elvis Presley plays a stunt rider on a Wall of Death whose main carnival attraction is of course his singing — the accompanying soundtrack album contains 11 Elvis hits. Inspired by the film, Vinnie determines to set up his own Wall of Death in the midlands and it is this that takes up the main action of the film. Of the other ancillary characters, the most important is ‘Boots’ (Niall Tobin) (so called after his cowboy footwear) who speaks with an American-inflected accent and whose reputation is based on his time in Nashville and his ear for a good country song, attributes that he employs to chat up the bar tender with the promise that he is sure he can get her a recording break. In another plot strand, the local politician, the corrupt Boss Murtagh (Joe Lynch) lives in the epitome of borrowed American popular culture, the once ubiquitous Dynasty-style ranch.

If American country music and the kind of American popular culture represented by Presley movies opens up a promise of escape for the film’s central characters, ultimately, Americana will let them down. Boss Murtagh’s smuggling venture does not yield the financial promise waved under the noses of the film’s gullible protagonists and the Wall of Death is so unstable that the crowd who has assembled on its ramparts rushes to the safety of the ground when Vinnie starts riding his bike around its interior.

At the end of the film, too, Boots confesses he is a fraud, and that he has in fact never been to America. If it is signalled to us that this kind of appropriation is a synthetic replacement for an unidentified and somewhat nebulous Irish authenticity, the film’s attitude to the other cultural borrowings is less clearly articulated. Boots’ deceit, his lie that he has been to America is widely understood by the community to be just that  — a lie and only he attaches any importance to it. That he dreams American dreams is both his saving and his downfall, both panacea and substitute for engaging with ‘real life’. Vinnie actively destroys his dream, by setting the Wall of Death alight. Yet, a final scene reveals the men clustered Vinnie’s newest scheme, the design and construction of a home-made helicopter.

There is a sense throughout Eat the Peach that the emotional consolations offered by ersatz American culture, false as they are, are not counterpointed by a ‘real’ Ireland. In Small Engine Repair, the same absences structure the film’s aesthetic and narrative. For its maker, it is as if Celtic Tiger Ireland had never existed. With the exception of one scene where the main characters drive into the local town, the action is divided between the pub, The Hideout, and Bill’s (Steven Mackintosh), the owner of the ‘Small Engine Repair’ works, home in the woods. Doug is betrayed by his wife early in the film’s narrative and moves in with Bill and his son Tony (Kinlan). Just as the lyrics of Country music so often articulate the conventions of the male melodrama, so the film resonates with these tensions, specifically after Burley identifies Doug as the snitch.

Forming a band entitled ‘Doug T and the Lonely Boys’, Doug finds the medium to express his hurt at his wife’s infidelity, composing and performing a song that he plays to resounding applause at The Hideout. So successful is he that he makes it onto the local radio show where he is interviewed as the up and coming name in Country music. Asked why he has chosen this type of music, Doug tells the interviewer, ‘it lets you say things that are hard to say’.

By voiding his film of all the conventional indices of Irishness, Heery is able to focus on his exploration of masculinity. What is interesting is that here the music is an enabling device in so far as Doug overcomes his fear of failure and is seen at the film’s ending to move, if tentatively, towards a greater sense of purpose. This does not mean, however, rejecting Americana but embracing it.

To conclude, the adoption of American country music and the visual iconography of the American West seem to me to allow for an exploration of male emotions that is otherwise increasingly difficult within postmodern cinema and its attendant ironies. Small Engine Repair is not so much a pastiche (of American indie cinema), as a self-conscious borrowing of its iconography that has the further effect of referencing that culture of emigration that for so long underpinned rural Irish life. In this way, Heery’s film reconnects with older Irish narratives, allowing for a suggestion that the Celtic Tiger is not the only story in town.