(2010) Written and Directed by Quentin Dupieux; Starring: Stephen Spinella, Roxane Mesquida and Wings Hauser; Available formats: DVD, Blu-Ray and Netflix Streaming
Way back, during my video store days when VHS ruled the earth, one of the most common questions I encountered was, “What’s new that’s in, that I haven’t seen before?” Without possessing any natural clairvoyant skills, I would be forced to make my best guess about what the customer might like. After I suggested something a little off the beaten path, the next questions would invariably be, “Who’s in it?” and “What’s it about?”
Let’s fast forward an unspecified number of years to the present, and pretend that I just recommended Rubber. I think the exchange might go something like this:
“Who’s in it?”
“Oh, no one you’ve probably heard of. Except maybe 80s C-list actor Wings Hauser.”
“So, what’s it about?”
“Well, it’s about this tire that kills people, and--”
“Sounds dumb. What else have ‘ya got? How about that new Adam Sandler movie?”
There were times, more often than not, when I felt I would lose all faith with the general movie-going public and humanity in general. But I digress...
Rubber doesn’t exactly lend itself to simple one-line descriptions. It’s probably best known as “that killer tire movie,” but that seems to sell things a little short. It’s really a satirical comedy that employs the trappings of horror. Writer/director Quentin Dupieux is well aware of the inherent silliness of his film’s premise, and has no trouble pointing this out on multiple occasions. We’re in on the joke from the start, as Lieutenant Chad, played by Stephen Spinella, breaks the fourth wall to point out to the audience the many times when things occur in movies for no reason. The movie-within-a-movie motif is employed throughout the film to enable the characters to step outside the action and comment on their surroundings.
The central story follows the exploits of the sentient tire Robert as he meanders through the desert on his rolling rampage. How did he become self-aware in the first place? How does he get up and move around without any outside assistance? Why does he possess an unquenchable desire to kill? These questions and many others swirled inside my head as I watched Rubber, but they didn’t really matter. There was something oddly compelling about watching a tire take on a life of its own, emerging from its junkyard prison like a butterfly from a chrysalis. As the newly liberated steel-belted radial explored its surroundings, it discovered its latent telekinetic abilities to make random things explode, ultimately moving on to blowing up the heads of any human who stands in its way. Yes, I realize how weird this sounds; and no, this doesn’t make much sense.
So, why choose an inanimate object as the film’s antagonist? To borrow a line from the movie, “No reason.” It could have been a beach ball, or a pogo stick, or a number of other things. The tire is simply occupying the role usually held by a serial killer or monster. We’ve seen similar situations play out hundreds of times before, but this time the villain has been arbitrarily replaced.
All of the usual horror clichés abound: the unstoppable killer stalking his victims, the unwitting object of his lust (including an obligatory shower scene in a seedy motel), the boy who knows who the killer is, and his disbelieving father. The cops are slow to realize the culprit’s identity, and by the time they catch on, the tire has left the scene. Of course, this leaves one to wonder why they didn’t just dust for tire prints in the first place (Bad joke, I know.). Dupieux uses familiar horror movie tropes to toy with the audience’s expectations. It’s a familiar story of the hunter and the hunted, but twisted around to the point where we cannot accept that we are seeing what we think we saw. We can’t trust the reality established by the movie when the movie frequently questions its own perceptions of reality. Even the characters are never sure if they’re participating in a movie or real life.
If there’s fault to be found with Rubber, it’s that the film is a little too self-consciously clever at times. Maybe there were a few too many moments when I felt that Dupieux was winking at the audience, as characters in the film stopped to consider what just happened. The satire seemed to be layered a bit thick, as the film frequently lapsed into self-reference, leaving me to question if I just watched an actual movie, or a parody of a movie. Although I could easily understand how this deliberate self-awareness could be frustrating for some, I found Rubber to be a whole lot of fun. It’s sort of an art film for those who can’t stand art films. At the very least, it’s a refreshing departure from the usual mass-marketed rental fodder, and it’s nice to know that a few intrepid filmmakers are still making movies that can’t be explained in one brief sentence.