I came across a fascinating op-ed in The Washington Post recently* that dove into the wilderness that many men exist in these days. They don’t quite know how to act. They don’t quite know how to be. They don’t understand what a man is in the year 2023. The question is, do you care?
When these men ask for help and look for both an explanation of what masculinity is and a way to behave, they’re mostly presented with two choices:
- The right-wing approach which focuses on degrees of “traditional” masculinity that veers perilously close to misogyny. By and large, it’s highly specific and very unhelpful.
- The left-wing approach which is more about what not to do. Be less toxic, be less abusive, and figure out everything else on your own. By and large, it’s highly vague and very unhelpful.
That lack of direction inevitably leads to loneliness, which is why there’s an epidemic of loneliness among men. You’d think that directionless and confused masculinity would be fodder for an enormous amount of films, yet, curiously, it’s not something we often see. The grievously misunderstood Fight Club examined that question and suggested when men don’t have positive outlets, they’ll invent negative outlets. The new independent crime thriller Rub asks the same question. Its answers are muddled, to say the least.
We’re introduced to Neal (Micah Spayer). His hair is thinning. He wears it in a sad combover. His wardrobe consists of faded earth tones, and it’s almost as if he’s dressing not to be noticed. His days are spent as a cubicle jockey. It’s not as if his boss is passive aggressive, he’s more straight-up aggressive, the kind of guy who’s always “just joking.” Neal just wants to be left alone, do his work, and scroll singles websites for dates where he’s inevitably ghosted. His nights consist of video games, furtive masturbation, all alone.
Desperation rolls off of him in waves. One way to look at his life is that he needs to take charge. Be confident. Clean up his apartment, get a nice haircut, and carpe the diem. Another way to look at it is that Neal is lonely. Depressed. Walking through a gray world populated by gray people.
In a conversation that feels…um, unlikely, Neal’s co-worker Trevor (PJ Landers) gives him a card for what could loosely be referred to as a massage parlor. Trevor tells him it’s the best eighty bucks he’s ever spent. While Trevor is an above board scumbag, Neal craves intimacy. Connection. He finds it, or thinks he does, with Perla (Jennifer Figuereo). She’s from the Dominican Republic. She’s a sex worker. She might like Neal.
Neal is the kind of guy always waiting for the other shoe to drop. It kicks him in the head, hard, when he’s humiliated at work. He thinks Perla is his safe harbor. He returns to the massage parlor. So do two masked gunmen, who attempt to pull off an extremely dumb robbery. During the chaos, Neal saves Perla’s life and she returns the favor seconds later. They go on the run. From what? To what? Neal and Perla haven’t exactly worked that part out yet.
Rub doesn’t quite work, but it’s not for lack of trying. Director Christopher Fox has made a true independent film, one with a small budget and large ambitions. He does a nice job of creating a sense of place, whether it’s in Neal’s drab apartment or in the home of a friendly auto mechanic played by Westley Barrington Artope. Fox knows to linger on specific details that tell us about the men who inhabit these spaces. That’s a sign of a good director, as is his ability to create a jittery tone in the first third of the film. Having said that, it often feels like Fox has bitten off more than he can chew. At times, Rub is a gritty crime thriller, a character study, a road movie, and a romance. As the film goes on, the tone varies wildly. It feels like the film can’t decide what kind of film it wants to be, so it tries to be all of them. The pieces are all there, yet they never mesh together.
Fox’s screenplay is where, tragically, the real flaws lie. I liked how he set up Neal’s life and how he showed us the large and small miseries Neal grapples with daily. Yet there’s a character problem and a plotting problem that’s never fixed. With plotting, a number of story details are never fleshed out. Who are the criminals who robbed the massage parlor? Are they connected to the criminals that own the massage parlor? Why are they chasing Neal and Perla? About 50 minutes in, a couple of presumably corrupt cops show up looking for Neal. Are they in the employ of the criminals? Do they have their own agenda? A script with stronger plotting would set up those concepts early on, then either pay them off or pinball in another direction entirely. None of that happens to a satisfactory degree here.
The characterization is additionally problematic. We get an excellent idea of who Neal is and how much he hates his life. What does he really want? What’s standing in his way of getting that? Over and over, Neal is a passive character. He either makes decisions impulsively or does what other people tell him to do. I’m fine with him being a flawed protagonist and making lousy choices, but we need him to push the narrative forward. That problem extends to Perla’s character and the relationship between her and Neal. We learn that she’s a victim of human trafficking. Does she have dreams beyond working in a lousy massage parlor? Does she genuinely have feelings for Neal or is he her ticket out of a terrible life? Do Neal’s fantasies collide with the reality that Perla is a three-dimensional human being and not a sexbot? Over and over, Fox’s screenplay starts to dig into meaty questions or examine characters that are fascinating while being somewhat unlikable. Then, like a Labrador Retriever, it’s distracted by something else and bounds off in a totally different direction.
The acting ranges from sub-community theater level to quite good. However, for this film to function, it’s the two lead performances that need to hit hard. Micah Spayer has the skill to portray Neal’s fear, hopelessness, suppressed rage, and longing. It’s a solid performance that occasionally goes a little too big. I wish that we’d been able to see past Neal’s protective shell a little more, and I suspect that’s more an issue with the script than with Spayer’s acting. The same goes for Jennifer Figuereo’s turn as Perla. She’s very good, particularly in the quiet moments, and we can see her thinking. Figuereo strikes me as a dynamic performer, but since her role is underwritten, she doesn’t have as much to do as she should. While I understand that this film is primarily Neal’s story, augmenting Figuereo’s role would have strengthened both the emotional aspects of both characters and the main narrative.
Rub is flawed. Its narrative could have been polished, its characters could have been fleshed out, the list goes on. Christopher Fox, along with his cast and crew, cared. They cared about telling a story that’s relevant, one that’s happening in a thousand iterations to a thousand different men right now. The only question left to ask is, do you care?
*You can read the essay here.