Someday, someone will write a thesis paper on Quentin Dupieux's Rubber that will make Quentin Dupieux laugh. He will laugh because people will read a lot of meaning into a film that has just enough meaning to suggest there's infinitely more. At its most basic, Rubber is about a tire that comes to life and kills people with its telekinetic powers. It sounds like a short, yet Dupieux rides it closer to the feature length finish line than you'd expect. The desert setting, the self-aware script and the bizarrely effective anthropomorphizing of the tire all combine to create a knowingly absurd horror/comedy. Where Rubber veers off the road is that for all its giggly moments and meta-whatever, it's never quite funny enough or scary enough. Pleasure is derived strictly from bearing witness to such devilish and well-executed nonsense. If this isn't a cult item, the word has lost all meaning. Audiences outside the mainstream will be crucial to giving this thing a longer-than-average tail.
Calling Dupieux's film nonsense isn't a knock. As nonsense goes, Rubber is sharp, experimental fun. To argue that Dupieux is attempting a grand thematic declaration is to argue that he's an unfocused theorist. In the dry, puckish, tone-setting opening scene, Lt. Chad (terrific Stephen Spinella) climbs out from the trunk of a car and explains to a group of spectators standing in the desert that everything they are about to watch will happen for no reason. What they're all witnessing, binoculars in hand, is a tubeless tire excavating itself from the sand and teaching itself to move. As the tire starts exploring its environment, we begin assigning emotional significance to even its tiniest vertical and horizontal movements. A gentle roll and we understand the tire is confused at its ability to crush a beer bottle. A swift wobble signals elation as it realizes its telekinetic powers can destroy small animals.
The barren and beige desert setting has the kind of isolated, almost numbing eeriness that might have resulted had Roger Corman hired Antonioni to direct the 1971 thriller Duel. Rubber is not as viscerally exciting as the Spielberg TV movie but it still holds your attention, especially when the tire graduates to killing people in the most grindhouse ways possible: by vibrating until the victim's head explodes. Dupieux's expert wielding of his Canon 5D digital camera allows the tire to be more interesting and, gasp, more human than most modern low budget serial killers. It dispatches its victims effectively and with varying degrees of justification, although punishment is understandably severe when a hotel maid throws it out of the room where it was watching TV and enjoying a shower.
If all this sounds hilarious, it's kinda not. If all this sounds scary, it's not that, either. Dupieux's creation is one of piquant absurdism that's only a few degrees better than the sum of its parts. Key to its sense of anything-goes is the binocular-wearing audience, fated to spend day and night in the desert watching the tire roll, rest, kill and follow a beautiful traveler in her convertible Volkswagen. Those spectators, it is later advanced, are the only reason the tire exists. As long as it's being watched, the tire continues to live. Armchair academics will claim that the film's final shot wittily extends the idea to argue that no movie can exist without an audience. Whether that's true or not, cheekiness is really Dupieux's primary aim and at times he practically dares us to overthink his movie. While investigating the series of strange deaths, Lt. Chad demands that one of his officers shoot him to prove that nothing they're experiencing is real. As a scene, it's cute. As an idea, it never comes together. Later, the police conclude they must continue because the lone remaining audience member (Wings Hauser) is demanding an end to the tale.
More than anything, Rubber is the story of a clever director with an out-there idea he challenged himself to pull off. He has proven worthy of the task, squeezing everything he can from the concept. Any questions about what it all means should be answered by circling back to the movie's foundational statement. The irony, of course, is that Lt. Chad's notion that everything in Rubber happening for no reason is wrong. Everything in a movie happens for a reason; even the stuff that happens for no reason at all.
Cast: Stephen Spinella, Jack Plotnick, Wings Hauser
Director/Screenwriter: Quentin Dupieux
Producers: Julien Berlan
Rating: R for some violent images and language.
Running time: 85 min.
Release date: April 1 ltd.