True, it’s hard not to describe this new independent film about a killer tire, which can be seen first-run on Time Warner Cable’s video-on-demand platform, without allowing for some humor. It’s just such a weird premise.
Yet this indie production has some serious issues on its mind about the absurdity of the human condition and the desensitizing (and dehumanizing) of American filmgoers to mindless, sadistic violence. Or at least I think it does. Maybe it is just a big goof — a film about a killer tire that uses telekinesis to blow up people’s heads. It’s part Camus, part Goodyear ad and part David Cronenberg (especially Scanners). It also, in its way, is out to satirize and one-up those endlessly banal children’s animated movies that relentlessly anthropomorphize every animal known to humankind.
Made by French director Quentin Dupieux (who also wrote the story and shot and edited the film, plus co-wrote the vaguely Morricone-esque score under the alias “Mr. Oizo”), it is in English and set in the sun-baked California desert. That’s where that misunderstood 1970 masterpiece about the alienation of American youth, Michelangelo Antonioni’s cryptically deadpan Zabriskie Point, also was shot.
Rubber begins as a car approaches a seemingly random destination in the desert, its driver carefully turning the wheels to slowly knock over a series of chairs placed in the roadway. A police lieutenant (Stephen Spinella) gets out of the car, as a nervous young man (Jack Plotnick) stands somewhere nearby, and launches into the strangest existential monologue ever uttered by a movie cop.
Why is the alien in Spielberg’s E.T. brown? “No reason,” he explains.” Why don’t the characters in Texas Chainsaw Massacre ever go to the bathroom? “No reason.” Why, in Oliver Stone’s JFK, does a president get shot by a complete stranger? “No reason.” And in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, why does a gifted pianist have to live like a bum? You guessed it: “No reason.”
It’s pretty clear the lieutenant is talking about life itself, not just the movies — The Pianist is about the Holocaust, after all.
But as he joins his officer in the car and drives off, it’s not evident the message about the human condition has registered with the group of people he’s been addressing.
They are mismatched, cranky “moviegoers,” who have been led to the desert likes lambs to slaughter to watch from a safe distance as Rubber unfolds in (seemingly) real time before their eyes. And to complain whenever the action slows down — they are hungry, literally, for graphic violence and, maybe, some sex. They are the subjects of the filmmaker’s disdain — fools who, in the face of the unfairness of existence, show not empathy but bloodlust. A bloodlust, by the way, that Hollywood feeds.
Among them is a crusty older wheelchair-bound gent (Wings Hauser) who seems wiser than the rest. For much of what follows, Dupieux cuts between the “action” and this Greek chorus’ commentary on the action … at least until their hunger gets the best of them.
As the plot gets underway, the camera turns to an undistinguished patch of dirt, where an abandoned tire rests. It slowly, twitchingly, magically comes to life and begins jauntily rolling down the road — killing an animal or two in its way. It seems attracted to a young, dark-haired French woman (Roxane Mesquida) driving through the desert, even using its powers to stall out her car. But a passing motorist interferes — and later pays for it.
The tire moves on to a dilapidated motel, where the French woman is staying and where it shows a Psycho-like fondness for showers. The police lieutenant reemerges to both conduct a murder investigation and break the fourth wall by discussing the film-in-progress with his confused deputies. They think this is a serious hunt for a maniacal tire, not a movie.
The tire, which is listed as “Robert” in the credits, has its own cathartic moment. As it rolls along, it comes across a field where workers are burning others like it. This is no country for old tires, it realizes. After it watches the bonfire, its attitude toward the human race seems to harden. Its murders up to that point have been semi-provoked. Afterwards, the provocation is inherent in the human species itself.
It’s hard for Dupieux to always maintain the delicate balance of tire-black humor and faithfulness to narrative, to not get so navel-gazingly “meta” about his intentions that Rubber becomes an exercise in film theory first and a movie second. Toward the end, there are shaky, superficially developed moments. Yet there is a funny late-movie scene — worthy of Super Troopers — where the police and the French woman try to coax the tire out of a house by using a bomb-laden mannequin.
It’s useful to compare this with American exploitation horror films that try to be knowingly clever while laying on the violence — the Scream series, including the new 4, for instance. Or those films that just plain old revel in torture and sadism, like the sickening Saw or movies by another director whose first name is Quentin.
I don’t want to pretend Rubber isn’t violent, but Dupieux cues the blow-up scenes with sound and visual effects and minimizes our exposure to the actual carnage. Surprising as it sounds, given the film’s premise and storyline, he’s a humanist. Grade: B-plus
RUBBER is currently available via video on demand through Time Warner Cable.