Writer/director Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber hit On-Demand ahead of its theatrical debut. I recommend skipping both media altogether and waiting for it to pop up on Netflix. This will allow you to A) fast-forward through the interminable tire-rolling-down-the-road scenes and B) avoid paying to see the film, outside of your monthly subscription (which some Netflix-ers often describe, curiously, as “seeing it for free”).
I paid $9.99 to rent Rubber from my television. That sounds ridiculous only to those who haven’t seen the movie’s trailer. Honestly, how can you watch that inspired two-and-a-half minutes and not be compelled to see the rest as soon as possible? I’m here to walk you back from the ledge.
“Come on, Ian,” you may think, “How could you possibly be disappointed by a movie about a killer tire with psychic abilities?”
Not easily. But I’d argue that Dupieux hasn’t really made a killer-tire film. The trailer is just about the sum-total of that angle of Rubber, and leaves out the other 78 minutes of the filmmaker’s meta-commentary. This isn’t a horror movie. Rubber is French performance art wearing an ill-fitting horror movie party dress—and you’re bound to be disappointed once you get a hand up its skirt.
The opening is ingenious. A car rolls through the desert, knocking over cheap wooden chairs that fall apart on impact. It stops. The trunk pops open and out springs Lieutenant Chad (Stephen Spinella), a small-town cop who casually grabs a cup of water from the driver on his way to addressing the camera. He delivers a surprising, funny monologue about how every movie, no matter how revered, contains at least one element that makes no sense (it’s a more-in-depth variation on Michael Yorke’s time travel disclaimer from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me).
Chad hops in the car and it drives away, leaving a lanky accountant (Jack Plotnick) to pass out binoculars to a group of spectators who’ve been standing behind a red velvet rope just off-camera during the speech. The audience is a cross-section of people you might sit with in a movie theatre; among them are know-it-all film nerds; obnoxious teenage girls; clueless, middle-aged parents; and a cranky old guy in a wheelchair. On the accountant’s prompting, everyone faces the same direction and looks through their binoculars. Together, they watch the official opening of the movie.
I loved this off-beat beginning. It set everything up perfectly, and I couldn’t wait to check back in with the spectators at the end of the film, after the crazy tire-on-a-serial-killer-rampage had ended. Unfortunately, I didn’t have to wait very long to see this crowd again: after five minutes of watching the tire dig itself out of a junk yard and wheel through the desert, blowing up a rabbit with its “mind” and rolling over a scorpion and a water bottle, we meet back up with the audience, who’ve begun to get antsy and hungry.
It’s here that Dupieux reveals his intentions with our time, and it’s not pretty. What he’d sold as an outrageous take on “Killer Something” movies was actually a confused analysis of both the moviegoing experience and slasher films—his resulting thesis, Rubber, suggests to me that he is not versed enough in either subject to make such a comment. As the film bounces between the spectators bickering and eventually being collectively poisoned by a turkey presented by the villainous accountant, and the tire-on-a-rampage—which involves a lot of rolling past unsuspecting people and either blowing their heads off or not blowing their heads off—it becomes clear that Dupieux has two interesting ideas but no connective tissue by which to weave them into a feature film.
After twenty minutes, Rubber becomes a series of filmed sketches (not comedy sketches, but filmic doodles that we must endure on our bumpy journey to the end credits). The tire finds its way to a motel and stalks a pretty French girl named Sheila (Roxane Mesquida); it kills the cleaning lady (Tara Jean O-Brien) who dares kick it out of the shower; and draws the attention of a boy named Zach (Remy Thorne), who tries to warn his clueless dad (David Bowe) and the cops about its evil schemes. Though these may sound like coherent scenes, they play like distractions—as if Dupieux needs filler between oh-so-groundbreaking moments of This-Is-Just-a-Movie shenanigans. Why bother getting attached to a moment or an idea, after all, when you can cut back to the spectators clawing apart a turkey like Day of the Dead extras, or another five-minute meta-logue by Lieutenant Chad where he reveals to his fellow officers that they’re all just actors in a really bad movie?
Again, these are cute ideas for about twenty minutes; after that, if a filmmaker intends on taking me into the Twilight Zone, he or she had better deliver one hell of a trip. Rubber meanders when it should race, and by the time Sheila and Lieutenant Chad play a Wile E. Coyote prank on the tire involving explosives and a mannequin, I was done with Rubber and done with Dupieux.
The one thing that somewhat engaged me throughout was the amazing special effects work. I still don’t know if the tire’s movement was accomplished using CG, remote controls, or both. Either way, the gag is seamless. You can have your transforming robots and shifting buildings; if you want to dazzle me, put a sentient tire on the screen and make me wonder how I’m seeing what I’m seeing for over an hour.
There’s also the matter of the exploding heads. Dupieux’s effects artists and compositors deliver scene after scene of eerily convincing gore. I re-watched that rabbit burst twice, and didn’t see any cutaways. Same with the first few human head-pops. It’s apparent that the headless dummies are, well, dummies; but there’s no evident trickery between a victim looking on in confusion and their brains splattering the screen.
Had Quentin Dupieux committed to making a sincere horror movie with a ridiculous premise, or even a horror farce that played up the genre’s worst conventions, Rubber might have had a chance. Instead, his film has a cynical, grooved surface that becomes evident once the shiny novelty wears off. It’s as if he’s made the film specifically to be under-appreciated when it hits theaters, so that he can claim he’s made a cult film. He likely imagines wild midnight screenings at art-house theatres nationwide, where people show up in cheesy sheriff costumes bearing whole turkeys to share with their friends, while dodging inflated toy tires ahead of the previews.
That might happen. But I think once more people get a look at this thing, they’ll realize how calculated yet undisciplined it is. There’s a throw-shit-at-the-screen vibe to Rubber that suggests Dupieux doesn’t care whether or not his movie is entertaining, simply because he’s covered his ass with the opening soliloquy about movies not making sense. Cult films are built on the sincerity of their awfulness (or awful greatness), and filmmakers manufacture underground pop wackiness at their own peril.
[Originally published @ Kicking the Seat on 03/14/11.]