Robert seems nervous about his newfound psychic power. His first victim is a piece of trash – after a brief charge, he uses his mind to tear it in half – and soon he’s moving on to more complex targets. He spots two men in a car. The wind-up is the same, but the payoff is far more gruesome, as the burst of psychic energy makes one’s man head explode. Robert enjoys his power, so he sets on a path of gleeful mayhem. This is the set-up for Rubber, a movie so bizarre it transcends any easy categorization. Crazed supernatural beings are common in thrillers and horror, yet what makes Quentin Dupieux’s English-speaking debut unique is how Robert isn’t human or even human-like. He is a black rubber tire.
A brief prologue provides some context. A cop emerges from the trunk of a car, and looks straight into the camera. “Why is ET the extra terrestrial brown?” he asks. “No reason.” He continues. Why didn’t the characters in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre use the bathroom? Why did the characters in Love Story fall in love? All the answers are the same: “No reason.” He explains the film we’re about to watch is a testament to the concept of “no reason,” though shortly afterward we realize the cop isn’t talking to us, at least not exactly. He’s addressing a few dozen spectators, all eager to see Robert’s story unfold, and no doubt their commentary resembles what some of us are thinking. Dupieux shuffles his focus between Robert and the spectators before the plotlines converge and the body count rises.
“A testament to ‘no reason’” is a slight misnomer for this oddity. It’s better to think of it as a testament to how any movie premise, no matter how nuts, can work as long as it’s competently made. And in terms of craft, Rubber is an unlikely success. Dupieux, already a successful musician, gorgeously photographs the American southwest, highlighting its austere beauty while evoking real menace. The actors are similarly dutiful; without exception, all of them play this material completely straight. Dupieux’s greatest achievement, however, is that he manages to give Robert a personality.
The scope of his movement is limited (he cannot speak), yet the right combination of rolls and tumbles suggest malice and sometimes a bit of playfulness. It easy to recognize Robert’s exuberant joy, for example, the first time he makes someone’s head explode. Once the cops attempt to thwart Robert, we root for the tire because he has more depth than those who chase him. In this regard, Rubber has more in common with WALL*E than it does with similarly-deranged horror films.
So is Rubber right for you? I guess if you’d made it this far, then you’re equipped to accept a sentient, homicidal car part. Still, a morbid experiment can only take audiences so far. With limited explanations and multiple breaks of the fourth wall, Dupieux teases his audience and eliminates any sense of suspense. But there enough weird moments/one-liners to help Rubber become a cult classic. In fact, a colleague told me it is better to watch the movie with a group of friends instead of alone, as I did. Looking back, I can see what he means. Shared giggles over Dupieux’s unwavering audacity make Rubber work not as a movie, but as an experience.