Vague Visages’ Rub review contains minor spoilers. Christopher Fox’s 2023 movie features Micah Spayer, Jennifer Figuereo and Westley Barrington Artope. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
Like human DNA, Christopher Fox’s impressive feature debut, Rub, includes instructional code for the journey ahead. But all bets are off when the protagonist, Neal (Micah Spayer), identifies the source of his trauma. Rub — a tragicomic, Euphoria-lite tale about cause and effect — is a surprisingly complex indie that initially feels like a poor man’s Office Space (1999) starring a poor man’s John Mulaney. All jokes aside, Fox displays obvious command of his craft, from the layered character sketches to the psychosexual subtext associated with painful childhood memories. And after the shocking death of 25-year-old Euphoria actor Angus Cloud, it’s not hard to link Rub’s narrative design with the central themes in the aforementioned HBO series.
“Every day, I sit alone,” says Neal — a cinematic descendent of Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver, 1976) or Andy from The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) — shortly before a manipulative co-worker urges him to visit a massage parlor for a “happy ending.” Interestingly, Rub’s protagonist is indeed a sexually experienced person, evidenced by a post-coital anecdote about being forced to lose his virginity at age 17, in a forest, with the local bad girl, and in front of a group of bullies. Neal, who minds his own business and treats people with respect (when not being provoked), seems forever stuck in a teenage state due to his unprocessed trauma. Incidentally, it doesn’t take much stress for him to lash out at co-workers, resulting in a second massage parlor trip that leads to a violent robbery incident and a road trip with a frightened Dominican-American sex worker named Perla (Jennifer Figuereo). Aesthetically, Fox infuses Rub’s opening act with edgy, sexualized visuals and a bold color palette, which aligns the film with a 21st classic like American Psycho (2000) or perhaps any modern film released by A24.
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Pacing and performance pop in Fox’s feature debut. From act to act, it’s clear that Rub’s writer-director wanted to execute a specific vision about free will. Part of the formula involves asking the audience to laugh at, and with, the protagonist, Neal. This is a man who gleefully admires his comb-over in act one and then plays it cool upon developing a bond with the curious Perla. Midway through Rub, the film turns into a sort-of road trip movie, in which the main players trip out on brownies upon meeting an easy-going Black man named West (Westley Barrington Artope) and his hippie pals. Even if Rub’s tone shifts, the central dilemma remains the same: Neal, who repeatedly breaks down like an angry toddler, worries about losing control of his relatively simple life. Furthermore, he’s concerned about being manipulated by external forces, almost like he’s destined to be swallowed up by a figurative black hole. Overall, Fox and his editing team typically calm the storm, via smooth transitions, before immersing the audience into trippy visuals (animation) and violent imagery (guns). Neal’s spectacular meltdowns reveal a man with erratic emotional intelligence and little control over the here and now.
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A strong feature debut like Rub suggests that the writer-director doesn’t need fancy equipment or multi-million dollar budgets to sustain a successful filmmaking career. In addition, Spayer’s outstanding lead performance allows the audience to better understand the nuts and bolts of Fox’s creative intent. Plus, it also helps one forget about weaker acting moments from supporting players. Fox has plenty on his mind but maintains a tight rhythm through cyclical explorations of Neal’s sadness and inability to emotionally recover from reckless teasing. Without clarity, a “leap of faith” — via THC or casual sex — could indeed lead the impressionable protagonist into the darkness. Rub is many things but ultimately a cautionary tale about the consequences of endless, unchecked bullying, even if the victim is indeed a grown man. Age ain’t nothing but a number when it comes to malicious adults hijacking the minds of innocent and extremely vulnerable people.
Rub released digitally on August 1, 2023 via Stupid Ears Films.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.
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