Rubber starts with a group of chairs in the desert. A car carefully knocks them over one by one as it drives up to a man holding armfuls of binoculars. Another man gets out of the boot, pours a glass of water on the ground and goes on a long spiel that can be paraphrased as follows:
“All great films, without exception, contain an important element called ‘no reason’…Ladies, gentleman, the film you are about to see today is a homage to the ‘no reason’.”
From this, the audience starts to get an idea what they’re in for with this little-known dark comedy from 2010. Which is good, because it only gets more bizarre from here. Everyone who doesn’t want to be on this crazy train should disembark now.
Rubber repeatedly violates the fourth wall without hesitation, shame or remorse. The plot has three threads: a discarded rubber tire that comes to life in the desert and discovers the ability to make people’s heads explode with sheer will power (don’t expect any further explanation than that), a distant crowd of spectators observing events from afar while discussing plot devices, and a genre-weary Sheriff who’s perfectly aware what kind of movie he’s in and will do anything to stop said movie in it tracks.
The rubber tire’s adventures are creepily fun to watch as it gleefully ticks off every B-grade monster movie cliché in the book. Its terrorisation of a small town satirises the existential angst of every doomed monster, from the anguished, oppressed Frankenstein to the innocently predatory Species. If you want to know how a rubber tire can become sentient in the first place, develop psycho-kinetic powers and experience hopeless attraction to a beautiful human woman…then clearly you weren’t listening to the introduction. The reason: there is no reason.
Meanwhile, the spectators watch all this unfold from afar and discuss trivia like whether sex between a human and a rubber tire could be called a ‘blow job’ and if a tire would float or sink in water. It’s a little strange at first, but once you understand that they’re a stand-in for real life audiences and film critics, it starts making sense. As long as they’re watching, the story must continue to unfold, and the characters must keep going through the motions. The sole person aware of this, the Sheriff, is determined that the show must not go on and plots to get rid of the spectators by any means necessary. But at least one spectator is equally determined to watch right through to the end.
This film has a lot of parallels to Joss Whedon’s cult-classic Cabin in the Woods, messily dissecting B-grade monster movies the way Whedon’s work deconstructed slasher flicks. While Cabin in the Woods questioned the sexualised violence of the horror genre, Rubber critiques the narrow narrative conventions demanded by the mainstream film industry. There’s absolutely no reason for the rubber tire to come to life, discover a zest for murder, and question its own tortured existence; no reason other than that’s just what happens in a monster movie. The prioritisation of form over content in story-telling is subtly discussed by the Sherriff and one of his deputies over a random chess game. The deputy points out ‘You can’t do that. It’s against the rules,’ to which the frustrated Sheriff replies, ‘Yes, but what if I’m not following the rules.’ Apparently even characters in monster movies are bored with predictable story-telling and desperate for it to end.
Though a clever premise and very fun to watch, Rubber didn’t do too well in its initial release, largely due to the mind-boggling weirdness that had a lot of people scratching their heads. Another factor weighing against it was the unfortunate sense of contempt for its audience. It suffers in comparison to the much-loved Galaxy Quest, which took apart Star Trek with one affectionate cliché after another and yet is still adored by Star Trek fans because they can feel the deep love for the genre underneath the jokes. Rubber, on the other hand, makes no bones about its opinion of its subject or its viewers. It contains all the repressed aggression of a thousand filmmakers who’ve had to watch their work torn apart like a half-cooked turkey by a starved mob of critics (that analogy might not seem funny now, but trust us, after you’ve seen this movie, it’s hilarious). Think of Cabin in the Woods as a masterfully written thesis, Galaxy Quest as a passionate love letter, and Rubber as letting loose that pent-up scream of frustration. It’s probably cathartic, but a bit difficult for anyone else to pick out the points of your argument.
Kudos should go to the inventiveness of director and writer Quentin Dupieux for the music and camerawork that manage to convince a featureless hunk of rubber can emote. Whether it’s frustration at a bottle that won’t crush properly or the sheer untainted joy of making a bunny explode, this is a tire that knows how to express its feelings. The special effects are gory, unconvincing, and hideously entertaining. Sadly, the final-show down is disappointingly anti-climactic, which is possibly an intentional choice, but still feels like something of a letdown. After all the violence beforehand, you’d expect the third act to have bit less discussion and a bit more explosive death.
At the end of the day Rubber is well worth watching. It’s smart, strange, and has a morbid sense of humour that’s difficult to look away from. A lot of its overtones will pass over the casual moviegoer’s head, but it still has plenty to offer in terms of sheer bizarre entertainment. If you don’t care about increasingly meta discussions about whether taping a film for your wife counts as piracy or the irony of the monster inflicting its victims’ fate onto itself, there’s still an evil rubber tire rolling around and blowing up heads left right and centre. No need to feel guilty about enjoying what you came here to see. Just don’t eat the turkey and you’ll have nothing to worry about.