The new film Rubber tells the story of an inanimate tire named Robert (love that name) that suddenly, mysteriously springs to life and starts killing people. Yes, that’s correct. No, it’s not still April Fools’ Day.
This very real flick from French techno musician/filmmaker Quentin Dupieux is an audacious meta-experiment. Rife with Brechtian allusions that call attention to the moviemaking apparatus, filled with broad philosophical musings about Scopophilia and other stalwarts of film theory, it sometimes feels like the narrative version of a long-winded film studies class tinged with a love of grandiose conceptual absurdity.
Still, the movie offers plenty for the 99.999 percent of us (myself included) that don’t spend your free time debating the relative merits of feminist film theory or devouring Christian Metz. The picture thrills in large part because the filmmaker so gleefully indulges in the craziness of the conceit, mirroring the tire’s deadly advance across a barren American desert with the plight of onscreen spectators perched on lawn chairs, binoculars in hand, devouring the spectacle and debating what it all means.
The experience inspires feelings of incredulousness, the stark “did that just happen” disbelief only provoked by works of art that dare to step boldly outside the mainstream. The sort of self-reflexive dialogue that comprises much of the production could easily register as smarmy, too cute self-absorptive schlock, but Dupieux and his actors ably tread the tenuous line between the fresh and the pretentious. Their philosophical musings about the nature of storytelling have a spontaneity to them that spurs charmed recognition rather than grating eye-rolls.
At the same time, Dupieux uses carefully-timed takes and some tire-level camera placement to transform Robert into a scary, sinister figure. There’s real tension in his rage-filled vibrations, which are spurred at the slightest provocation and which through some sort of psychic energy cause the spontaneous combustion of his antagonists. He’s a tire with a personality, stalking the burned-out, dusty landscape he treads (pun not intended) with the fury of a rampaging baddie.
A segment of the viewing audience quite justifiably will not get what Dupieux’s doing. Rubber is a deliberately out-there provocation and such works are geared to be despised. Yet if the WTF idea of a film centered on a psychotic tire fills your heart with joy, if you’ve long-harbored an affinity for the films of Jean-Luc Godard and other masters of this sort of insular fourth wall-shattering fare, you’ll be rewarded with one of the few recent movies to openly, brazenly play with narrative form while telling us something about ourselves.
The Upside: This is a smart and incisive cinematic experiment.
The Downside: It’s geared squarely at the head, not the heart, and thus misses out on greatness.
On the Side: The movie has been received divisively, but whether you ultimately love it or hate it, or can’t imagine seeing a movie about a tire, it’s unique enough to deserve your consideration.