Small Engine Repair and Shea Whigham's Stand-Out Performance - VRGyani News and Media

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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Small Engine Repair and Shea Whigham's Stand-Out Performance

The last few years have seen Shea Whigham emerge as one of the most exciting character actors working today. Though his initial feature film roles in projects like Splinter or Machete saw Whigham being a go-to performer for villains, recent years have seen him inhabiting a greater variety of roles. Take his scene-stealing supporting turn in Kong: Skull Island, as a glibly insightful soldier who takes the extraordinary sights of the titular location in stride. Let’s also not forget his exceptional roles in TV shows ranging from Waco to Fargo or small but important parts in movies like First Man.

Case in point: the movie Small Engine Repair, which sees Whigham taking on the character 'Packie' Hanrahan, one of the film’s three lead roles. Not only is the sight of Whigham taking on a leading role an unusual but welcome sight, it’s also a unique character for the actor, who delivers one of the standout performances of the entire project.

The trio of protagonists in Small Engine Repair, which also include Terrance Swaino (Jon Bernthal) and Frank Romanoski (John Pollano), are lifelong friends whose lives have largely been defined by indulging in toxic masculinity. With a bond forged in the fires of abusive households, the trio takes smacks, tussles in bars, and other aggressive behavior in stride. The closest to a departure among the group is Whigham’s Hanrahan, a soft-spoken individual more interested in talking about social media apps than fighting. This is just the start of the deviations between Hanrahan and his companions, with these differences informing the most fascinating aspects of Whigham’s performance.

For one thing, whereas Swaino and Romanoski have an assured swagger in their differing personalities, Whigham gives Hanrahan this constant wounded look; the character always looks like he’s a few minutes away from bursting into tears. There’s a soft-spoken nature to Whigham’s Hanrahan that makes him the Linus van Pelt in a friend group largely consisting of Lucy van Pelt’s. Thanks to such a starkly different demeanor, Whigham always catches your eye, he’s such an aberration in this trio that your eye drifts over to him, partly out of sympathy (you just want to hug this guy sometimes) and also because, like the buddies he hangs with, there’s an unpredictability to Hanrahan. With his quiet disposition, Hanrahan can pop out of nowhere with some out-of-nowhere comment.

RELATED: Jon Bernthal, Shea Whigham and John Pollono on Their Pitch-Black Comedic Drama ‘Small Engine Repair’

Whigham also wrings a lot of amusement out of Hanrahan’s other key difference from his buddies: his socially conscious nature. While his pals are content to drop gay panic jokes or ableist terms, a running gag throughout the movie is Hanrahan calling out those insults and then remarking on someone he knows (a distant relative who’s a lesbian, a cousin with down syndrome, etc.) that belongs to the disparaged marginalized community. A lesser movie would’ve made these comments from Harnahan a joke at the expense of the oppressed.

Whigham’s performance, though, instills these asides with such sincerity that they instead work as amusing ways of peeling back layers on this guy. Maybe Hanrahan doesn’t always hang with the right crowd, but Whigham uses these recurring lines to show that he still has a heart. There’s a level of nuance and even outright compassion within Whigham’s performance that makes him such a welcome part of the often troublesome trio that headlines Small Engine Repair.

Then there’s the touchiest aspect of Whigham’s performance; the suggestion of some kind of mental health issues. Through Whigham’s turn as Hanrahan, there are subtle suggestions (from the character’s difficulty with maintaining eye contact in certain scenarios to the way he mumbles to himself) that suggest he may have some sort of underlying condition, perhaps autism or something adjacent to that. It never gets specifically diagnosed here, which does feel fitting given that Small Engine Repair centers on guys who’ve never really processed their childhood trauma, let alone dealt with modern-day mental health issues.

A lot of actors would overplay this part of Hanrahan and turn in the kind of performance lampooned by Ben Stiller in that Simple Jack parody from Tropic Thunder. Whigham, meanwhile, employs a greater sense of restraint here, only displaying these parts of Hanrahan as flickers in his everyday demeanor rather than the overwhelming default. Whigham ensures these traits are just extra flavors of personality rather than the entirety of his character. It’s a choice that reflects the nuances in Hanrahan as a character as well as Whigham’s gift as an actor to eschew going for the easy choices.

That sense of restraint is apparent throughout Whigham’s performance in Small Engine Repair and becomes especially crucial as the movie’s plot spirals into more out-of-control territory as the third act begins. Even Hanrahan ingesting a bunch of molly doesn’t inspire Whigham to engage in stylized comic antics; it’s just inspiration for welcome moments of subdued levity during the grim moments of Small Engine Repair’s climax. Rather than feeling pressured to match the outsized nature of other performances and story details in Small Engine Repair, Whigham has the confidence necessary to stick to his more subdued instincts.

Those instincts are especially apparent in the best scene in Small Engine Repair. This sequence makes extensive use of Whigham by having him serve as a narrator to a flashback to when Hanrahan and his two best friends were youngsters. Here, Whigham recounts how all of their fathers, after a football game viewing party had gone awry, began to physically abuse them in the wake of a young Frank stumbling onto his father crying. Much like with how Whigham portrays Hanrahan staying cool in the face of his rowdy friends, Whigham maintains a consistent wistful vocal pitch while recounting this disturbing tale.

The dissonance between Whigham’s cadence and the brutally abusive behavior onscreen strikes a vivid picture of how these guys have repressed their emotions about their turbulent childhood. His narration and brief physical flourishes (like his excitement over remembering how he and his two buddies escaped and grabbed a bottle of Scotch along the way) stand out as tragic, not warm or funny. Without beating the viewer over the head with this concept, Whigham’s adherence to consistency in this particularly memorable scene subtly suggests how Hanrahan has normalized traumatic childhood experiences as a way of coping with all that bottled-up pain.

It’s a terrifically realized sequence that gets so much of its effectiveness out of Whigham’s chops as an actor. Of course, anyone whose seen Whigam’s prior work as a performer won’t need to be given extensive pieces of evidence reflecting this guy’s chops. Even in smaller roles in movies like Vice and Joker, Whigham has managed to imbue humanity into people that could have easily become caricatures. People you should just hate, love or any emotion in between become something much more detailed in Whigham’s assured hands.

That talent proves indispensable to Small Engine Repair, where Whigham is handed a character who could have easily either faded into the background or become an uncomfortable stereotype. Instead, Whigham injected layers of nuance into Hanrahan that made him the socially conscious and loveably imperfect standout of Small Engine Repair.

KEEP READING: Shea Whigham and Olivia Munn on ‘The Gateway,’ Their Love of ‘70s Thrillers, and Working With a Legend like Bruce Dern



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