A fascinatingly restrained if somewhat flawed study in masculinity, Andrés Clariond’s Close Quarters (Territorio) is an often engrossing slow-burn thriller set in middle-class Mexico. A manager at a local furniture factory, Manuel (Jose Pescina) struggles to give his wife Lupe (Pualina Gaitan) what she wants more than anything in the world: a child. After keeping track of Lupe’s ovulation cycle seems to fail them, they enlist the help of a fertility doctor and receive deviating results. Manuel’s sperm count is zero. A Hail Mary is offered for 40,000 pesos (roughly $2,100 U.S. dollars, for context) and Manuel becomes interested in quick money, from selling his car to other more nefarious activities. 

Through work he meets Ruben (Jorge Jimenez), a subordinate who dreams of crossing over into the United States and naively asks his boss about the possibility of a company loan. Manuel then invites him over for dinner where Lupe–who initially has second thoughts based on his class, education, and occupation–grills Ruben about his medical history eventually giving into the idea he may be an ideal donor. The men then go out for a beer and eventually seal the deal over one drunken night where irreversible damage is done. 

Close Quarters grows into a riveting thriller as Lupe carries forth with both the pregnancy and a relationship with Ruben as Manuel becomes a stranger in his own home. Writer-director Andrés Clariond edges in many instances towards the line as the two men square off in various disturbing instances as they compete for Lupe’s affection at home and on the tennis court. An observant drama, the director is content to watch and walk in Manuel’s shoes as he attempts to destroy the monster within.

Like Lila Aviles’ knockout drama The Chambermaid, Close Quarters offers a commentary on identity and labor in a country that maintains an extreme economic class structure. Hiring someone to do the work, however, proves to be more complicated than Manuel and perhaps Lupe anticipated as she becomes attached to Ruben, a self-made working-class man who also can both charming and menacing.

If anything, the commentary is far from subtle as Manuel walks silently alone through the streets, passing by young families in a bouncy castle immediately after a particularly shocking moment. Close Quarters offers gut punch after gut punch as we empathize with Manuel. He begins to question his own sexuality and feelings he may have to repress to earn his place in Mexico’s middle class. It is a fitting decision to largely restrict the film’s perspective to that of Manuel, though the closing moments hit a false note.

Like the evil twin of Good Newwz–the recent Bollywood film about a mix-up in a sperm clinic that also provided a commentary on masculinity and identity, albeit it in a cartoonish way–this Slamdance premiere is a more affecting picture with a more restrained hand.

Close Quarters premiered at Slamdance Film Festival.

Grade: B-

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