Wheel of fate with road rage
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, April 15, 2011
“Rubber” is a silly thing. But it doesn’t stop at silly.
The live-action thriller, a tongue-in-cheek splatter flick about a sentient car tire on a killing spree, rolls straight over silly, smashing through stupid without stopping and then barreling into a kind of insane comic brilliance without so much as a speed bump to slow it down.
Lest you wonder whether that last paragraph contains a typographical error, allow me to repeat the operative phrase: a sentient car tire on a killing spree.
On paper, those eight words sound like the wackiest — if not the worst — idea for a “Saturday Night Live” skit ever. This could be funny for, what, three minutes, tops? In the hands of writer-director Quentin Dupieux, a Frenchman better known as the music producer and techno deejay Mr. Oizo — under whose name he also directed a bizarre series of Levis commercials starring a yellow puppet named Flat Eric — it’s funny for a heck of a lot longer than that.
The movie starts out like the parody of a zombie flick. Out of the dirt somewhere in the southwestern United States, a discarded rubber tire rises up, like a reanimated corpse from beyond the great American automobile grave.
First, it crushes an empty plastic water bottle, almost accidentally, as it wobbles through the desert landscape. Then it squishes a scorpion, this time with a little more sadistic glee. Soon, it graduates from inanimate objects and invertebrates to small animals — a rabbit, a bird — which it kills not by running them over, but by harnessing the malevolent power of its, um, mind to make their heads explode.
Can human victims be far behind?
Now, something is also happening simultaneously that makes this nonsense work. Even as the rogue tire begins stalking Sheila (Roxane Mesquida), a sexy French tourist in a convertible, we see that the film’s increasingly grisly series of murders are also being observed, through binoculars, by a gaggle of gawkers on a nearby hillside. They’re watching the action live, at the same time that we’re watching it on screen.
They’re like a Greek chorus, reminding us — as if we needed reminding — that it’s just make-believe. They comment on the action, loudly complaining about the parts they don’t like, and chuckling at the parts they do. In addition to them, one of the main characters — the sheriff investigating the tire’s crimes (Stephen Spinella) — opens the film by directly addressing the camera with what sounds, in a nutshell, like Dupieux’s absurdist philosophy of moviemaking: “All great films,” the lawman tells us, “without exception, contain an important element of ‘no reason.’ ”
Why, he asks for example, in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” do we never see anyone wash their hands or go to the bathroom? No reason.
Why, in “The Piano,” does someone who can make music as beautiful as Harvey Keitel’ s character live like a bum? No reason.
But Dupieux isn’t just out for laughs at the expense of other movies. In a sense, “Rubber” is less about the drama unfolding around the tire than about the audience watching it on the hillside. Over the course of the movie, they come in for far worse treatment at the hands of the filmmaker than any of the steel-belted serial killer’s victims.
“Rubber” is a great, giddy spoof of the cinematic cliche of the psycho-killer. But it also contains a sly critique of our own appetite for junk culture. Its serious side never gets in the way of the fun — or of all that flying brain matter — but does make you wonder what a steady diet of “no reason” is really doing to our heads.
Contains obscenity, violence, nudity, a rude gesture and some sexually explicit dialogue.