The selling point of "Rubber" sounds like the whole story: A tire comes to life and goes on a murderous rampage. But Quentin Dupieux's utterly zany slice of narrative subversion transcends that singularly goofy premise to create one of the more bizarre experiments with genre in quite some time. With playful self-reflexivity, Dupieux uses his central gimmick to satirize the nature of cinematic conceits.
Minimalism has become a hot commodity for contemporary horror, with newer releases like "Buried" (Ryan Reynolds trapped in a coffin) and "The Human Centipede" (figure it out) deriving much of their appeal from a single tantalizing idea stretched out to feature length. "Rubber," however, comments on this trend rather than simply embracing it.
Despite a reputation to the contrary, the movie holds very few horror conventions, instead moving into a realm of sheer absurdity. Dupieux's barren desert setting begins with the introduction of spectators ostensibly watching the movie itself from a remote position through binoculars. A police officer arrives and delivers an extensive introductory monologue about the importance of "no reason" in motivating virtually every movie ever made (although he mainly cites icons of pop culture like "E.T."). This movie, explains the cop, exists solely as a homage to the importance of "no reason." Does the upfront confession signify earnest self-justification or pure surrealist commentary? What comes next suggests that it's both.
In a scene of epically comic personification and an unsubtle nod to "The Red Balloon," the circular villain rises to life as the spectators watch from afar, then proceeds to roll through the landscape and slowly build toward its killing streak. The curious tire learns a few dirty tricks, vibrating in masturbatory glee as a means of blowing up remote targets ranging from birds to human heads. The body count creeps up as the tire makes its way to a local motel, where it encounters several potential victims and an inquisitive child. And then things really get weird.
Cutting back to the spectators, Dupieux puts them in the position of skeptics. "Shouldn't a tire float?" wonders one when it rolls into a pool and sinks. "The way I see it," another man later concludes, "this scene makes no sense at all." By its third act, "Rubber" has moved to a place of sheer lunacy, with the head police officer showing up at the scene of the crimes and explaining to his troops that the entire situation "is not real life" and once the spectators cease to exist, their world does, too. (Film theorists can play around with that one all night.) Needless to say, he's still wrong by the end of the movie -- maybe because he didn't account for us.
Even with its bizarre satiric perspective on the nature of the viewing experience, "Rubber" does begin to wear out its welcome around the sixty minute mark, but you can't blame Dupieux for giving it a shot. The more overly ambitious aspects of the movie are also the parts that make it fundamentally hilarious. The final shot serves as a serious indictment of the Hollywood machine. If "Rubber" truly contains a political statement about the dangers of ill-conceived storytelling methods, then its intentions are as ambitious as its marvelously farcical high concept.
criticWIRE grade: B+
This review was originally published during indieWIRE's coverage of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. "Rubber" opens in limited release this Friday, April 1.