Roxane Mesquida as Sheila
Thomas F. Duffy as Deputy Xavier
Cecelia Antoinette as Woman
Devin Brochu as Son
Directed by Quentin Dupieux
When a movie announces its intentions with the sort of honesty and directness that Rubber does, the director usually intends for his film to be more of an experiment than a piece of entertainment. And given that the opening scene is literally addressed to the audience, Quentin Dupieux's film certainly promises to provoke thought, with or without necessarily providing a reason to feel anything. But Rubber is that rare achievement that operates as actively on a metaphorical level as a visceral one, provides commentary in addition to compelling visuals, and ultimately exceeds the value of its central conceit thanks to execution that seamlessly merges form and content.
Following that expository introduction, in which a police lieutenant (Stephen Spinella) describes how "no reason" is the engine that drives virtually every movie ever made, a group of moviegoers is given pairs of binoculars and left alone in the desert. They are there to watch Robert, a car tire that rouses from his dusty slumber and ventures tenuously into the barren landscape, crushing all obstacles in his path. When he is unable to smash a beer bottle, Robert summons psychokinetic powers that allow him to explode objects with his mind, and he uses this newfound ability to move on to larger objects.
Meanwhile, the moviegoers become increasingly invested in his travails, and as Robert pursues a young woman named Sheila (Roxane Mesquida), stopping only long enough to enjoy a few minutes of television here and there, a unique and symbiotic relationship emerges between their viewing experience and his increasing empowerment.
As absurd as the premise of "a killer car tire" admittedly sounds, Rubber is an embodiment of the sorts of implausibilities we tacitly accept in other movies, and then essentially validate through our viewership; for example, suffice it to say that cartoon toys aren't real and don't have feelings, but it seems like no one is impervious to the emotional crescendo arrived at by Woody and the gang at the end of Toy Story 3. The only difference between this film and that one, or indeed any other one, is that the vessel for our identification is an inanimate object that doesn't express itself except through explosive bursts of kinetic energy. And as the spectators in the film develop their own reactions and opinions to Robert's behavior, they actually intensify his powers with their attention, in much the same way a movie gains weight and meaning through the analysis and interpretation by its audience.
With all of these lofty ideas floating around both at its core and on the surface, Rubber honestly isn't much of a horror film â€“ really, it's more of a gory comedy - although it does feature one of the genre's prototypical unstoppable killers. But the most interesting aspect of the film is its own self-awareness â€“ not merely commenting on itself, but truly understanding its own rhythms, and their context in both the internal storytelling and the movie-going audience's reactions. Early in the film, a character says that "it's pretty boring so far," and that observation shows up mere seconds before I consciously thought the same thing. That the movie isn't actually boring, but deliberately paced in order to exploit and deconstruct filmmaking formulas, is but another of its many admirable accomplishments.
Technically, the film is a real marvel as well. I suppose that it's probably not terribly difficult to create some kind of mechanized tire that can roll around on its own, but it was nevertheless impressive to see how effectively Dupieux invested the object's mostly-typical behavior with real personality. In addition to directing, Dupieux served as the film's writer, editor, cinematographer, cameraman, and co-composer of the score, which adds a sense of cohesion to the film and further reinforces its integrity as a real, singular work of art. For a film that basically observes the on-screen action 75% of the time from about a foot off the ground, its look is expansive and varied, and the camerawork turns a very ordinary landscape into a series of obstacles that we easily negotiate but to a creature with no arms or legs would seem like significant challenges.
If ever there were a film that won't be for everyone, this one is it, but there's an irony in its weirdness in that it's really no weirder or unlikely than just about anything else we see in other films and still enjoy. Further, its observation of the power that we give to entertainment, to keep something alive with our attention and interest, is something with which it seems like genre fans will especially be able to identify. But ultimately, Dupieux's film is intriguing, provocative, and surprisingly engaging, and those qualities hardly require profound, substantive foundations in order to work effectively. Rather, they merely require interesting characters that we can connect with, and possibly care about, which is why Rubber is one of the year's more odd and yet undeniable triumphs: even when you think you're just thinking about what's happening, it's also prompting you to feel something at the same time.