Review by Sarah Williams
Close Quarters may dive closely within the struggles of toxic masculinity, but it is not enough to make the film feel like more than a poorly scored shouting match. Attempting to insert itself into the vein of a psychological/erotic thriller, the film falls flat emotionally, and is often dull. It's not to say our leads don't try — José Pescina and Paulina Gaitán give solid performances as spouses Manuel and Lupe. When Rubén (Jorge Jiminéz) takes a job under Manuel, he is looking to earn money to cross the US border, and Manuel happens to be struggling to have a child with his wife. It is suggested that Rubén takes over the pregnancy effort when Manuel is deemed infertile, but this has its own problems. The two men become friends as a way to help the other reach these goals, but aggression comes to prevail.
Each of the two men challenges the other’s masculinity. Manuel is softer and more emotional, while Rubén tries to fit the more traditionally ‘macho’ stereotype. However, these roles do little to affect the two men, who remain aggressive in their masculinity no matter what. Lupe is caught in the middle of these tensions as a sort of balancing force. While it is great to critique that toxic masculinity affects all men in some way, this is handled poorly. The film devolves into a bit of a yelling match that grows unfocused. It is meant to represent a balance between a man’s innate sensitive side, and the expected aggression, but the roles become too blurred for the contrast to come through.
The film's music choices are often intensely distracting. Soaring anthems play over sex scenes, perhaps as a juxtaposition, but the effect ends up being comical and stale. The opening is nicely scored with gentler audio, but with much of the film being unscored, with long, quiet takes at times, these bursts of anthemic music are jarring. Even if it is meant to be a tonal shift told through the music, it is so oddly placed within the scene it almost feels like a ringtone going off in a theater. So much of the silence in the film feels deliberately affecting, so what is the point of the booming music interrupting intimacy?
In terms of lighting, there is a direct choice made to avoid all sources of direct light. This grows to be a bit too diffused at times, and the shots flatten heavily. It is meant to induce melancholy, but these argument scenes, especially given the music choices, are supposed to be emotional outbursts instead of a slow, pulsing gloom. The performances are strong, garnered after rehearsals in a rented Airbnb over the course of two weeks. This brings a tension, a sort of over-containment, where the tensions almost seem to be natural strain.
Fertility is so often a woman’s problem in film that it is refreshing to see infertility shown from a man’s perspective. By having Rubén, the more traditionally masculine of the two friends, as Manuel’s potential sperm donor, Manuel only feels more threatened and begins to lash out. He is already more emotional, and conscious of this, so he takes it as an even greater threat to his manhood. It is great to see male friendship portrayed onscreen, but by putting the two in competition, it only reinforces the idea that men must distance themselves from friends. Lupe is also heavily sidelined, put out of place by her husbands new bonds that she is often just there as the wife in the background, or even just a womb to fight over.
Close Quarters debuted at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival, which ran January 23-30 in Park City, UT.