Life’s lonely road, ‘Rubber’ style

By Drew Hunt

Sometimes a film builds a reputation for itself based not on its quality as a piece of cinema but for the sheer nerve of its presence. Such is the case with French director Quentin Dupieux’s debut feature, its premise adequately described as “that killer

tire movie.”

“Rubber,” a sort of homage to the bloody road thrillers of the late ’70s, is the story of a discarded tire in the middle of a California desert that somehow springs to life, shakes off the dirt and begins to roll down a lonesome highway on its own accord. Along the way, the tire shows a propensity for extreme violence and soon embarks on a murderous spree, killing everyone in its path.

As these events unfold, a group of tourists, or “viewers,” gather on a hill, equipped with binoculars to watch the action. As a primer, a local sheriff played by Stephen Spinella informs them—and therefore, us—that they’re here to watch a movie in which things happen for “no reason.”

The sheriff goes so far as to apply this philosophy to film in general. “Why is the alien in Steven Spielberg’s movie ‘E.T.’ brown?” he asks. The answer: “No reason.” Sure enough, “Rubber” is a film that truly embraces this ethos of “no reason.” The film makes good use of unruly transgressions, completely disregarding logic in favor of sheer inanity. Characters frequently address the audience, and the film follows a free-form narrative structure, breaking every screenwriting rule possible.

This lawlessness is funny and intriguing in stretches, but Dupieux quickly runs out of tricks. He doesn’t so much explore the fringes of surreal experimentation as much as he toys with the audience and simply gives it the moniker of surreal experimentation.

“Rubber” is at its best when reveling in B-movie tropes—its extreme gore and self-aware humor is just amusing enough to not be annoying. Unfortunately, these gimmicks are all Dupieux really has. Considering he’s not much of a visual stylist and is clearly unconcerned with thematic rumination, “Rubber” finds its footing in provocation.

In most instances, this provocation is entirely primal. But Dupieux also manages to explore the metaphysical properties of an audiences’ interaction with cinema. Acting as his subject is the “audience” of tourists watching the tire’s adventures.

By closing the gap between these viewers and the “actors” they’re observing, Dupieux assesses the submissive nature of the average moviegoer. Following the theme of “no reason” faithfully, his biggest aim is to denigrate mainstream cinema for the way it promotes compliance in viewership: If the events in a film happen for no reason, then the audience has no reason to care.

When his renegade tire eventually fixes his gaze toward the ubiquitous Hollywood sign, it’s all too clear where Dupieux is aiming his punches. Which is fine, but entirely obvious. Dupieux’s metaphors are overwrought with on-the-nose anarchism. When the sheriff’s musings find their way into the realm of nature—“Why can’t we see the air around us? No reason.”—Dupieux’s absurdism crosses the line into utter stupidity.

It turns out there are plenty of reasons we can’t see air. And by the same token, there are any number of reasons why things happen in a film. Rather than examine the conviction—or lack thereof—behind “reason,” Dupieux relies on lazy nihilism. “Rubber” falls victim to its own strained pointlessness.