Rub is hardly the first, and certainly not the best, film about a disaffected white guy whose disconnection drifts into dangerous acts. Taxi Driver is probably the most famous example, and more recently, Joker made Arthur Fleck a picture of white male disillusionment, living in a world he perceives as set up to prevent his happiness.

Although it hardly compares to either film, Rub somehow manages to feel fresh even as its budgetary limitations may have kept it from saying as much as it could have.

Neal (Micah Spayer) is generally a real go-nowhere sort of asshole. He’s the kind of guy who commonly hears “I’m just fucking with you” from pranking co-workers. Not particularly respected by his co-workers, Neal has a shitty car and a shitty apartment, and is the kind of person who gets so excited about dates that, if the date shows up at all, he short-circuits by coming on too strong. 

He’s an easy target, the kind of awkward loser who silently walks around on the verge of bursting into tears (or a murderous rage) at any moment because he never really learned to regulate his emotions or find an appropriate outlet for aggression. Life is one huge frustration interrupted by a series of smaller (but no less infuriating) frustrations. 

When a co-worker suggests Neal visit a massage parlor for a nice, tension-easing massage, the experience is mind-blowing. His masseuse, Perla (Jennifer Figuereo), has a quick interaction with him, but of course, Neal is in love. His second visit goes very wrong when armed intruders enter. Neal acts, people die and Neal and Perla are on the run. 

Neal “rescues” Perla, and she instantly falls in love with him. He instantly turns from a loser in a massage parlor into a Man of Action, claiming credit for taking down a faceless bad guy and becoming the hero in an instant, earning it on the strength of a single action. It’s the fantasy of a 16-year-old high school outcast who thinks he could bag the cheerleader and can’t handle her just not being interested in him. 

Neal is the prototypical cuck “nice guy” who really isn’t. He’s the protagonist of his own story who doesn’t realize he isn’t the storyteller. His physical transformation — shaving his head and adopting a thrift-shop wardrobe upgrade — does as little for him as his ability to truly protect himself and Perla. 

Rub is an incel action-hero fantasy, the wet dream of a loser who longs to be the hero. Writer-director Christopher Fox doesn’t make Neal a standard conservative prick, but there are a few subtle nods that help us along. Neal’s boss, his chief tormentor, is Hispanic, offering a subtle “they’re taking our jobs” vibe. So, too, are the largely faceless villains who pursue them, with little to no development; their role is to be mindless, dangerous and violent gangster-type thugs who menace Neal. They are simultaneously the people who brought him to Perla and whose actions block his happiness. 

Perla is also Latina, an undocumented worker who entered the country illegally from the Dominican Republic and was forced into prostitution against her will. Neal “rescues” her from that life, pledging to protect and love her. Her discussion about how she “belongs” to him underscores his white male savior fantasy complex: she wants to please him because she helped him. He doesn’t seem to realize or care that a relationship built from obligation is one that’s easily broken, and in a film filtered through his gaze, she’s property to be owned, protected and ordered around. 

The film’s lowlight is a bizarre haircut scene that serves multiple narrative purposes. In the context of the story, it’s meant to change Neal’s look, giving him cover as they try to escape. But there’s also a strange eroticism to it, and it’s easy to see that Neal as a character would look at the moment as one akin to the pottery scene in Ghost — a sexy moment between lovers while performing a task that doesn’t seem particularly sexy on its own. But instead it comes off as creepy and strange (and how sexy could a barbershop-floor romp be?). 

In the aftermath of that sequence comes Neal recounting his first sexual experience, offering a glimpse into how, through trauma, someone could become the person Neal became. Even the language he uses, referring to the “town slut” in his story, reflects his lack of respect for women and offers clues into his attitudes.

Meanwhile, Fox’s ultra-low-budget look and feel is generally unappealing and uninteresting, although infused with a handful of memorable images; one, in which Neal runs through a city street wearing only underwear and holding a shotgun, constitutes the film’s poster art, with the slogan: “Not all endings are happy.” That image is perhaps the film’s most telling one, encapsulating the thinness of the male psyche and the expectation that they perform heroically on a moment’s notice. 

It’s also a fitting metaphor for Neal’s fragile masculinity and those for whom he is an avatar in real life, a tinny pipe dream whose reality masks their insecurity and ineptitude. 

Fox at least gives the impression that he’s in on the joke, that Neal is a pathetic character, but a few additional beats throughout could have punctuated that message, which perhaps limits the film’s overall effectiveness.

And whether Rub’s ending is happy or not, in an age where politics and ego are inextricably linked, films like this are very necessary, even if they are difficult to watch.