France. Directed by Quentin Dupieux, 2010. Starring “Robert,” Stephen Spinella, Roxane Mesquida. 82 minutes.
A group of spectators have assembled in the desert. They are addressed by a man in a state trooper named Lt. Chad (Stephen Spinella). He delivers a monologue on the topic of things happening in movies for “no reason.” Why is E.T. brown? No reason. In JFK, why is the president assassinated by a complete stranger? No reason.
He then informs the gathering that, in the film they’re about to watch, everything happens for exactly no reason whatsoever.
The assembly is given binoculars, and their attention is drawn to a nearby junkyard, where a discarded tire (identified in the credits as “Robert”) has suddenly come to life. It rolls along under its own power, awkwardly at first, but soon with confidence. Soon it discovers it has the power to destroy. It encounters a plastic water bottle and rolls over it, crushing it. It encounters a scorpion and does the same. When it fails to crush a beer bottle, it concentrates and causes it to explode by the force of its will alone.
It continues on its journey, killing anyone and anything that gets in its way, and drawing a variety of bystanders into its crime spree: Sheila (Roxane Mesquida), a young woman on a road trip; Zach (Remi Thorne), a teenager who works at a motel; even Lt. Chad and the police.
Is the tire really alive? Are these bizarre events really happening, or is it all some sort of trick? Will the audience, stuck in the desert with binoculars and no food, live long enough to see any of these questions answered?
Let’s be honest here. No film is ever “just a movie.” All movies are products of the people who make them: their obsessions, their anxieties, their fears. What makes them laugh, what frightens them, what turns them on. It doesn’t have to be conscious. Most of the time, it’s unconscious. But anyone who creates art will find the things they think about reflected in that art. It’s inevitable. When you watch a movie, everything you see and hear is the result of a conscious choice. Mistakes are a choice. Randomness is a choice. As Neil Peart once pointed out, even the refusal to make a choice is a choice.
At the beginning of Rubber, Lt. Chad asserts the opposite, but his argument gradually negates itself. He says important things in movies happen “for no reason,” but not only are there reasons for most of the examples he gives, those reasons are glaringly obvious. That says a lot about what follows.
Let’s compare Rubber to two other films that explore why things happen the way they do in violent movies. The Cabin in the Woods addresses the issue of inexplicable character behavior in slashers. Like Scream, it’s pure entertainment with a meta level. You can play along at home if you like, but it’s not necessary to enjoyment of the film. On the other hand, Funny Games isn’t entertainment and I’m sure Michael Haneke would be pissed at the idea of anyone, anywhere, actually enjoying it. Not only does it nakedly manipulate events to fit a predetermined outcome, it literally tells the audience that it’s doing so.
For the purposes of the point I’m making, the crucial difference between the two films is that Funny Games features a character who knows he’s in a movie. Rubber either splits the difference or takes it a step further. Lt. Chad knows he’s a character in a movie, but he doesn’t know where that ends and where his real life, assuming he even has one, begins.
Horror-comedies are expected to have a degree of self-awareness these days but what I hope I’ve communicated here is that Rubber has a bit of a philosophical bent to it, definitely more than you might expect from a movie about a tire that comes to life and starts Scanner-ing people to death. But it’s not an intellectual approach to philosophy: it’s more like a verbal game of “what if?” played by a pair of stoned college students in a dorm room, or an 80-minute-long Conspiracy Keanu meme.
This means that the film is going to be an acquired taste from the get-go, and has a tendency to be uneven, probably by design. It’s amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny, but not consistently so. It has a tendency to drag a bit in places, particularly at the beginning (the sequence depicting Robert learning to roll and kill is a particular offender…I think I get why writer/director Quentin Dupieux filmed and edited it the way he did, but sometimes that footage seems endless). It’s definitely more than a little indulgent.
It’s also one of those films that’s largely resistant to element-by-element breakdowns of its quality, because many of its flaws (uneven pacing, stilted performances) seem to be part of the point of the film–features as opposed to bugs.
Ultimately Rubber seems to be the kind of movie you either get or don’t get. I get it to an extent, and enjoyed it quite a bit, but it felt like certain thematic/narrative choices got in the way of me embracing it fully. On the other hand, I don’t think it could be “fixed” without taking its uniqueness away from it; art’s like that sometimes. Maybe it’s your kind of thing more than it is mine–hopefully I’ve given you enough information so you can tell whether it is. But despite my mixed emotions towards it, I’m rather glad it exists.