Movie Monday - Rubber
It’s been a full 10 years since I sat down to watch Rubber for the first time. It was the final act in a long day which included New York City Comic Con in all its glory. My friend, who had invited me out for the event, and I were looking for a movie to wrap up the day and, in the early days of streaming, agreed on this quirky film from French director Quentin Dupieux. We’d both heard of it. We were both curious…and being of relatively kindred spirits at the time, we decided…what the hell.
With that nearly homoerotic opening, let’s look at that synopsis:
A crowd gathers to watch a tire come to life and embarks on a killing spree throughout the American Desert Southwest.
Yup. That’s about it.
Now, I’ll tell you right now, after that first viewing, my friend and I sat back, looked at each other and shared the same sentiment: “I’m glad I watched it…but I don’t know if I like it. Nor do I even know what I just watched.” And thus, it always felt like unfinished business in my brain. So I made a mental note, if I could find a way to watch it again for free, I’d need to take that opportunity.
Ten years later, Tubi TV on my Roku offered the film with ‘limited commercial interruption’. With this second viewing, I have a better understanding of the film, I like the gore and I even like what the film is trying to say in a metatextual sense. But there is something in this film that keeps me from liking the film itself. So let us set out on this review, you and I, and see if we can’t figure out what keeps Rubber from being an Instant Impulse Buy.
The film’s opening sets the stage perfectly for the proceedings to follow as a police lieutenant emerges from the trunk of a Crown Vic and goes into a soliloquy about how many aspects of our favorite films occur for “No Reason.” Now, some of his argument holds water, but as he provides more and more examples it does go off the rails a little bit. Once he’s finished, we’re left with a man holding binoculars distributing them to a crowd of people who are present to watch the events unfold with us, making a clear distinction between the “real world” that they inhabit and the “unreal world” the story takes place in.
What I didn’t quite get in my first viewing was that, at least by my interpretation, this distinction that we’re presented with right off the bat is vital to the metatextual case it is going to present to us, the viewers. [And yeah, I’m just gonna hop on the bandwagon and just say ‘meta’ from here on out. – Ed.] The ‘story’ segment is as outlandish as you’d expect: a rubber car tire does indeed come to life and from very early on gets a taste for homicide by running things over…first a plastic bottle then a scorpion. When it comes across a glass beer bottle that refuses to break when run over, we get the other fantastical aspect of this tire’s newfound life: psychokinesis. Through sheer force of will, it shatters the glass.
Anger isn’t it’s only emotion though, as it uses its powers to stall the vehicle of an attractive woman as she drives past. While this first attempt at contact isn’t successful, and we’ll get to that in a bit, the tire does manage to catch up to her at a roadside motel, spying on her while she takes a shower. When that fails, it gets the room next to hers. As a viewer though, we’re never quite sure if it’s love or lust that the tire feels and in accordance with the opening monologue, either one is certainly viable given…well…”No Reason”.
While not its only emotion, anger is CERTAINLY the prominent one…and this starts off pretty early. In the tire’s first attempt to contact the object of its desire, it’s run off the road by a passing pickup driven by about what you’d expect to see driving an older, slightly beaten up (perhaps I should say ‘well-used’ instead) pickup truck in the Desert Southwest. C’mon, you know the guy…you can see him without me giving any further description. As you’d expect with everything leading up to this sentence, this fella doesn’t see the end credits, the tire using his powers to cause the gent’s head to explode in a way that would make the effects folks behind Scanners proud. From here on out, this will be the primary means of human death throughout the picture…although we’ll come to another on the flip side of the coin in just a bit. One would think this would get old…but I gotta tell you, nope. You see it coming every single time it happens but what can I say…the gore effects here are pretty solid and at least for me, each exploding head is as good as the last. What finally sets our…I’d hesitate to call him an antagonist or protagonist…maybe he’s just our main character…anyway, what triggers our final killing spree is our tire rolls up on what isn’t all that uncommon out there, a big ol’ pit of burning tires. Here the tire figures one genocide is as good as another and starts up the head-poppin’ which will culminate in a police showdown with the object of its affection helping to bring it down.
Now let’s rewind and flip the coin, going back to the beginning of the movie but this time focusing on the audience and thus, the meta aspect of the film. The audience we see here are filled with all the things that can make the theater-going experience painful: people who talk to each other, people who talk to the screen, people only there for the nudity (and those not satisfied with it), those that bring their kid to something that’s clearly not appropriate for their age and those that tell you what THEY think the movie should do or end. Digging deeper, and your mileage may vary on this, we see a starving audience…maybe for content, depth or diversity (either in topics/themes/genre or in those on and behind the screen)? We see poisoned food: it that a commentary on content or is it commentary on concessions available at the theater? We see an audience member telling the Lieutenant from the opening what kind of explosions he wants to see to make for a fulfilling close to the tire’s story. Is that commentary on focus groups? Or perhaps the violent expectations of audiences?
Dupieux juxtaposes these elements well, in fact, I dare say that the way they alternate helps keep the head explosions fresh [Or you could just be a sadistic bastard that likes seeing head explode perhaps? – Ed.]. The first time I watched the film, I’ll admit that I wasn’t aware of all these elements, but now, not only am I aware of them, it turns out that these themes presented remain pertinent, perhaps now even more so given the uber-conglomerates that are the Hollywood system these days. The old man’s content criticisms sound like the corporate and executive meddling that ends up neutering some films (coughWBcoughDCcough). Starving the audience only to poison them could certainly be attributed to the franchise blitz Disney seems to be content in pushing, offering up Marvel or Star Wars installments that can feel empty or unnecessary…serving to ultimately poison any love people may have for these franchises. The final scene in the film, where the tire is resurrected as a tricycle and leads an increasing group of recently animated tires toward Hollywood itself sends a hopeful message: we, the weird, the unique, the oddball are coming…and we’re coming for the establishment. Who knows if they’ll succeed…or perhaps they already are. With filmmaking becoming increasingly decentralized thanks to the ease of getting the necessary tools, both hardware and software, many more individual storytellers are getting their films out there, some good, some trash and most somewhere in between…just like what we see in the multiplex now! Distribution is following a similar route, thanks to the continued prominence of streaming services, so now these weird films can be found by an audience seeking them out and having them right in their living room, as opposed to finding the one weird little theater in the questionable part of a city or town that’s at least 30 minutes away.
As I’ve been writing this, I think I’ve figured out why Rubber feels like something’s missing. I think it continues to remind you that it’s an art film with prolonged establishing shots that sit in silence and actors being quirky while letting you know that they’re being soooooo quirky right now. Call it “Wes Anderson Syndrome” if you will, but that’s a surefire way to pull me out of your film and make me think that you’re a pretentious douche. Now, to be fair, the director IS French…so that’s not much of a stretch! Okay, okay…I kid…at least a little bit. But there is at least a little bit of a pretentious air that surrounds the film. Sure, the exploding heads shake that feeling for a bit, but at some point, the film will remind you that it’s trying to be artsy and, at least for me, that never ends well.
Look, ultimately if you’re even remotely interested in the one sentence description of “Rubber tire goes on a killing spree”, then you need to see this film. I’d certainly suggest that you see it for free if at all possible, but yes, I certainly recommend the film. The thing is though, I can’t guarantee if you’re going to like it, because while I like both of the stories told here, the tire and the audience watching it, something about this film just doesn’t come together. So even though the film only gets our Plain Cat rating, I do highly recommend it nonetheless.