One thing can be said for certain about Rubber, the sophomore film of French director/record producer Quentin Dupieux (a.k.a. Mr. Oizo)– you will believe that a tire (named, the post-credits inform us, Robert) can gain sentience and use its newfound telekinetic powers to go on a bloody rampage through a small desert town while pursuing the ample bottom of the beautiful Roxane Mesquida.
A single read-through of that premise should be all you need to know if you’re on-board with this film or if you’re going to take a pass. The plot, such as it is, doesn’t expand beyond what’s in the preceding paragraph, except to include a crowd of spectators within the film observing the action through their binoculars as it unfolds. Stating the blatantly obvious, Rubber‘s an odd duck, an uneven mixture of slasher parody and meta commentary on the relationship between audiences and art. On paper Dupieux’s film sounds contrastingly ambitious and delightfully campy; in practice Rubber only works successfully when in its horror-comedy mode. There’s a striking incongruity between the film’s genre satire and the sub-theme Dupieux attempts to examine which ends up making an eighty minute film feel like a two hour slog through a badly staged musing on the nature of art patronage.
I don’t think that the two elemenets Dupieux balances here are inherently opposed to one another; Rubber actually works fine cutting between Robert’s awakening and discovery of his powers (which David Cronenberg would be in awe of), and the audience-within-the-film acting like the chorus of a Greek drama. Kept apart from Rubber‘s gonzo take on slasher tropes, the small yet boisterous group of viewers function just fine in the purpose Dupieux seems to intend for them. It’s only when his serial killer (tire) movie directly acknowledges and confronts his meta movie that Rubber begins to fall off the rails and ultimately proves to be more witty than intelligent; the act of quite literally feeding his loquacious, unruly audience a poisoned turkey is far too on the nose to be taken as anything other than a personal indulgence.
It’s not that Dupieux’s arguments here are elusive– people will consume anything that studios and filmmakers provide them, art ceases to exist or matter without an audience, and so on. It’s that they belong in opposite corners from one another and can’t coexist in the same cinematic universe. Maybe Rubber could have sustained these messages if Dupieux kept the fourth wall intact, but he handily shatters it and his two films collide in a way that’s heavy-handed and ends up burdening the rest of the picture’s events. Or maybe he should have pulled a bait-and-switch, abandoning his exploitation picture to explore the endeavor that, at least in my opinion, is more important to him.
If nothing else Rubber succeeds as bit of gloriously deranged B-movie entertainment; when Dupieux’s picking on slashers, the movie’s surprisingly fun and blackly humorous. Robert tests out his powers on objects inanimate (beer bottles) to small and fluffy (a rabbit) before setting his sights on humanity by exploding some heads here and there as he pursues Sheila (Mesquida), the object of his inexplicable desire. Rubber‘s slasher film contains all the elements you’d expect– the kid who knows the truth behind the string of detonated craniums and who no one believes, the kid’s boorish and ignorant father, and of course the town sherrif, who happens to be in on the film’s prankish conceit. Pulling no punches, Rubber even allows for the staple gratuitous shower scene in which Robert spies Sheila bathing in all her naked glory, and of course, there’s gore, cartoonish to the point of being more comical than unsettling. I get the sense that Dupieux’s an avid fan of slasher movies, so as ludicrous as Rubber gets there’s always a sense that there’s some appreciation for the genre behind the lens; it’s not really an homage, but more of a completely whacked out love note, perhaps.
Anyone with a penchant for bizarre and batshit filmmaking probably will do well with what Dupieux offers here, but the meta stuff eventually becomes something that hinders rather than enhances the film. What’s most frustrating about Rubber is that as nutty as the concept is, it’s still not the kind of movie that absolutely must be seen on the basis of its bonkers virtues. Dupieux gets too much in his own way, I think, and ends up with a half-cooked piece of critical thought and analysis along with a slasher spoof that frankly could have been just as much fun as a short. Did this need to be a feature-length picture? Probably not, but maybe we could have had a bona fide midnight movie classic if Dupieux had been more judicious in deciding what sort of film he really wanted to make. As it stands, Rubber‘s too little of one thing or another to really be great.