Jean-Luc Godard famously said, “All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun.” Now that we’ve seen Rubber, a film by a younger French provocateur, perhaps that should be amended to: “All you need for a movie is a girl and a tire.” Adding a new twist to the sub-genre of horror films about homicidal objets, from killer cars to killer tomatoes, Rubber is about a killer tire. For no apparent reason, a dusty old tire hoists itself out of a junkyard and comes alive, rolling under its own steam. Taking baby steps, it learns to flex its power by crushing a water bottle, then moves on to small animals, and finally people. It doesn’t run over them. The tire just stands there and quivers with a low rumble, emitting a psychokinetic force that will make your head explode, just like the heads in David Cronenberg’s Scanners. Nothing says horror comedy like an exploding head: one minute someone is having a conversation, then in the blink of an eye his brains are all over the wall.
A tire that makes skulls splatter may seem like a stretch, but since finding traction at its Cannes premiere last May, Rubber has been gaining ground. Shot in English by French filmmaker Quentin Dupieux—better known as electro-house music producer Mr. Oizo—this absurdist horror flick rolls into a Toronto multiplex April 8, and will make tracks for other Canadian cities later this spring. The kick of seeing a movie like this lies almost entirely in its surprise value. So a spoiler alert is called for: if you want to experience the full impact of Rubber first-hand, you may want to skip the next paragraph.
The story, such as it is, takes place in California, on a desert highway that leads to a derelict motel. Driving a red convertible, a French babe with dark bangs and short shorts (Roxanne Mesquida) has just checked in. After following her into the parking lot, the tire nudges open her door, and watches her take a shower. Yes: a peeping tire. And he’s just getting started. Later, after blowing the head off a chambermaid, the tire gets a room, takes a shower himself, and sits down to watch a Formula One race on television.
The tire, by the way, is male. Despite the shape, no one suggests for a moment that it could be female. Everyone in the movie refers to it as “he,” and the director calls him Robert. Before long, we start to impute character to the tire. He’s smug, ruthless and enigmatic—mysteriously superior to everyone else in the movie, like Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men. This discarded husk of rubber is an existential anti-hero, a Big O with a hole where his conscience should be.
Aspiring to be more than a retread of schlock horror, Rubber is not content to be a movie about a runaway tire that becomes a serial killer. It’s arty and conceptual, the kind of deadpan semiotic gag only the French could come up with. It begins with a black sedan slaloming through an array of wooden chairs in the desert, knocking them down one by one. A cop steps out of the trunk, and addresses a group that has gathered to see a film. He lectures them on things that happen in movies for no reason. “The film you are about to see,” he says, “is an homage to no reason.” Binoculars are distributed to the audience, and the “movie” unfolds around them in the desert, while characters debate the desirability of various plot points.
It’s all pretty silly, a B-movie with a fake degree in post-structuralist philosophy. But Dupieux, who’s billed as Rubber‘s writer, director, cinematographer, composer and editor, likes to call himself its “stupid creator.” Pointing to the demon truck in Stephen Spielberg’s Duel (1971) as inspiration, he delights in the fact that he shot the tire without digital effects, using just a cheap robotic gizmo and puppeteering.
Rubber may act like a B-movie, but it doesn’t look like one. This low-budget lark was shot entirely with a still camera (a Canon 5D, the SLR of choice for photojournalists), which has a cinematic lustre that’s revolutionizing indie filmmaking. It has allowed a French artiste to run amok in America with a nutty idea and a minimal crew. The result is a practical joke on the audience that Godard might appreciate: a movie that refuses to be a movie about a tire that refuses to be a tire.