“This is the first time in my life I’ve identified with a tire.”
In the late 90s & early 00s Quentin Dupieux was making electronica records & puppet-starring music videos under the moniker Mr. Oizo. He’s since developed the visual end (the much more interesting dynamic to me) of that project into a career as a full-blown filmmaker. I’ve yet to see any of Dupieux’s other works, but it’s very easy to see Mr Oizo’s (and his puppet surrogate Flat Eric’s felt-covered) fingerprints all over his most widely known film to date, Rubber. Rubber is, in essence, a work of puppetry. A horror comedy about a sentient, killer car tire with psychokinetic abilities, Rubber is puppetry in its most basic sense: it brings an inanimate object to life & supplies it with a personality. Rubber‘s car tire protagonist/antagonist might not be easily recognizable as a traditional puppet, but it’s easy to see an A-B connection between the irreverent puppetry of the film & Dupieux’s past work as Mr. Oizo/Flat Eric. Local mainstay Miss Pussycat might be a more logical path of lineage for Mr. Oizo, but Dupieux has certainly not left those puppet-centric music video roots in his past.
A full-length feature film about a killer car tire might sound a little narratively thin to wholly succeed, but Rubber sidesteps that concern by adding a second plot line concerning meta audience participation to its formula. Rubber is not only an unnecessarily gritty/gory version of the classic short film The Red Balloon; its also a tongue-in-cheek indictment of the audience who would want to see such a gratuitous triviality in the first place. A car tire comes to life & immediately learns to kill after it figures out how to roll on its own treads. After crushing bugs & trash under its light weight, the tire moves onto telekinetically exploding human heads like that one .gif from Cronenberg’s Scanners continuously playing on loop. The only thing that could stop this depraved nonsense is if the meta audience surrogate, a mysterious group of binoculars-equipped onlookers, would just simply stop paying attention. Rubber’s central message seems to be very much in line with that of the Treehouse of Horror segment “Attack of the Fifty Foot Eyesores“. If we don’t want to see any more films this inane, cruel, and unnecessary, we need to stop paying them attention.
Of course, I do enjoy watching things this inane & gratuitous, which is largely what Dupieux is depending on. My favorite parts of the film are the moments when the tire is doing things even more unnecessary than rolling on its own volition or exploding heads with its “mind”: it sleeps, it drinks, it watches television, it peeps in on girls in the shower, it stares in abject horror at a mass grave/tire fire, etc. It takes a certain appreciation of for-its-own-sake-absurdity and/or impossibly dumb horror schlock to enjoy the film for what it is, but Rubber does come off as eager to amuse once you get on its wavelength. The smartest thing Dupieux does with Rubber is to open the film with a fourth wall-breaking mission statement that ponders “In Steven Spielberg’s E.T. why is the alien brown? No reason […] In Oliver Stone’s JFK, why is the president suddenly assassinated by some stranger? No reason,” and goes on to declare “All great films, without exception, contain an important element of ‘no reason’. And you know what? It’s because life is filled with ‘no reason’. The film you are about to see today is an homage to ‘no reason’, the most powerful element of style.” If you’re amused & not violently rolling your eyes at the sentiment of that quote, chances are you’ll have a similar to reaction to Rubber as a whole. All else abandon ship.
Even with all of Rubber‘s stray meta-philosophical tendencies (which are never taken too seriously), Dupieux sticks to a strict doctrine of ‘no reason’. There’s no entertainment value or general purpose to this film about a killer car tire other than the perverse pleasure of watching a film about a killer car tire. It’s the kind of the same joy you could pull from watching a yellow felt puppet file paper work, drive a car, or shill for Levi’s jeans to a groovy beat. It doesn’t need a reason beyond its own very existence.