Rubber is about a rubber car tire that suddenly becomes alive. It starts rolling about in the American south-west and develops a murderous personality. But is it really about a tire? Prepare to be confused. It is about audiences and movies in a more general sense.
There’s an artistic streak to this movie, but in the sense that weird stuff happens. Director and writer Quentin Dupieux is very well aware that the entire premise is ridiculous, but that is also the whole point of making it. As a director, he is making a name for himself for films that are really out there, and Rubber is probably the one that reaches the largest audience. He’s a film festival’s director. While it is always interesting to see what he cooked up next, none of his films are really considered good. But he’s just having fun.
Rubber starts out with some totally random actions, and then a fourth wall break as a police officer explains that in every movie, stuff happens for no reason, inviting us to keep this in mind and so inviting us into the mindset of what we’re about to see. Then we see us, the audience, who are handed binoculars to observe all the happenings from a distance. The speech is uninspiring nonsense, really, but we still get a sense that Dupieux is willing to think out of the box and be playful with filmmaking.
We see the birth of the tire that’s alive, and it’s all very cute. It learns how to roll and get up again when it falls. Until it finds a discarded plastic bottle, and a dark streak in its soul is laid bare for the first time. After that, it’s pretty much what you would expect. The tire rolls around and starts blowing up people’s head with its telekinetic powers. Meanwhile, the “audience” with the binoculars comments on what’s happening. I quite like the film so far. The “audience” sort of expresses how director Dupieux thinks that we are reacting to the film.
But then the humans are also very strange, all of them. That’s where the film starts to lose its appeal. A living tire is strange enough by itself, and the concept works best if that is contrasted with normal reality. I’d love a film about a murderous car tire set in a realistic film that resembles actual life. Absurdity works best if there is a contrast with normality. But Rubber is all absurdity. The humans are there to shock us too and I think the point is that humans can be just as much strange and murderous animals as a psychopathic tire.
Another point is that the movie is totally aware that it is in fact a movie, and the “living tire” plotline gets sidetracked by fourth-wall breaking scenes. But these aren’t particularly funny. They take you out of the movie deliberatively. It is a difficult movie to stick with, because it’s just strangeness without real meaning. Compare this with a Jodorowsky movie, where everything is strange as well, but that all has meaning as metaphors or allegories. A consequence of strangeness for strangeness’ sake is that there is little plot and little suspense, and a whole lot of waiting for the movie to be funny again.
There’s still some visible skill behind the confused storyline, and in a roundabout way Dupieux seems to want to make a point about the relationship between audience and director, with the film in between. The only human in the “audience” who seems unaffected by anything that happens is the guy who looks at the whole thing with skepticism, and who refuses any attempt by the “facilitator” of the movie to get something out of him. Are we supposed to look at Rubber the same way, with so much skepticism that we shouldn’t take any of it seriously?
Rubber doesn’t play according to the rules of filmmaking. It kind of feels like we’ve been lied to. It’s a confusing, layered movie that plays on a different wavelength. It’s not about a psychopathic tire. It’s about the absurdity of movies itself, about its own absurdity. It doesn’t really succeed in making itself clear though. It’s not the story we wanted to hear.