Kevin Smith is a filmmaker who, like some others, has a look and attitude all his own. I have found his work at times to be utterly juvenile and self-absorbed, like he’s doing you the favor of being let in on a private joke (albeit one you may not really get) and other times to display fiercely accurate and cutting social commentary. Billed as a horror film, TUSK does in fact have some merit in telling a twisted tale of karmic retribution, which at times is downright haunting. However it is sadly more-so one of those private jokes, which delivers some laughs, but in the end leaves you frustrated and a little bit pissed off. I went into TUSK enthusiastically looking forward to a shift in direction for Smith who wrote and directed the film. It is based on a podcast he did where he reported on a true story of a Canadian citizen who would allow travelers to stay in his house for free if they dressed up as a walrus for two hours a day. Smith expanded that idea to a grisly story about a serial killer aiming to make a human walrus. Sort of a less fecally-focused HUMAN CENTIPEDE.
Justin Long plays Wallace Bryton, a porn-stached LA based podcaster whose web show is manipulatively called the “Not-See Party.” Yes, that is indicative of the humor and mental age of Wallace and his cohort Teddy Craft played by Haley Joel Osment. They laugh so hard at their own jokes and think so highly of themselves that they don’t really need an audience although they purport to have a massive following. Theirs is the kind of show where they seem to not really generate unique or original content but rather coast off their own hilarious interpretations of other peoples viral videos. After reporting on a piece of found footage of a young man brandishing a samurai sword and accidentally severing his own leg, and laughing themselves silly over it, Wallace heads to Canada to interview the now one-legged young man. Thus begins our adventure in the Great White North. There is the requisite Canadian bashing humor and in fact the funniest scene in the film is between Wallace and his customs agent in Winnipeg.
A critical feature of the narrative is that Wallace is, simply put, a colossal prick. He is wildly arrogant, presumptuous, mannerless, obnoxious, disrespectful across the board, juvenile and appears to have no redeeming qualities. Or at least none that I could identify. He’s not even cute. His suffering, out of his league and cheated upon girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) tells him the night before his departure that with success he has changed into a crass soulless egomaniac. All that being said it pushes we the audience toward our ‘villain’ Howard Howe played with nuanced power and intelligence by Michael Parks. We are practically begging him to dispatch with Wallace with as much pain and suffering as he can deliver. Their engagement and dance is well crafted and tense. Smith has built a true nightmare and it is legitimately frightening. Formidable, well acted and compelling, it is set in a dark and brooding house and filmed with skill and attention to mood and light. That is, until the movie takes a left turn into a wholly other film and ditches you.
With the arrival of the character Guy Lapointe, a former Quebecois homicide detective, the film becomes a farce. Lapointe, billed in the film as ‘Guy Lapointe,’ is such an extreme caricature, so inconceivably over the top that is is as though Smith ran out of film and patched in footage from some detective spoof movie he was previously working on but abandoned – with good reason. It is not that Lapointe is not a funny character – he is very much so – but he doesn’t belong in TUSK. Suddenly we are thrust into that private joke and we want to go back to being scared. It was way more fun. Crazy serial killer films are often not believable and we know that going in. But they are based in reality. The famous and ever haunting skin suit in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is an image I will never let go of try as I may. The walrus suit in TUSK, on the other hand, I will never let go of because its hilarious, stupidly fake looking and utterly ridiculous.
There is a difference between films which are frightening and you happen to laugh because you are laughing with the characters, laughing to cope with their fear and yours, and films which are ostensibly frightening but you are laughing at them. TUSK cannot figure out what it wants to be, scary or silly, but the two do not happily coexist in this venture. You are with him full throttle until he kicks you out of the moving car. I applaud Kevin Smith’s approach to movie making and his sensibility. A regular guy showing regular folks. And I bet there are hundreds – maybe thousands – of Wallace Brytons out there trying to be famous. I think that is part of what is smart in TUSK, that Smith is illustrating the cruel, base depths to which people will go to be “famous” and the belief that it will deliver them from some form of hell. I have to question whether Smith suddenly got scared that no one would take him, or TUSK, seriously if he continued making a “serious” film. I have to wonder if this was screened for test audiences. I wish that Smith had been urged to go the full mile with the horror story. To commit and follow through with what was a enticing story, like a black fairy tale, instead of winking at us and laughing, letting us in on his joke.
Director: Kevin Smith Starring: Justin Long, Michael Parks, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez Rated: R Running Time: 102 minutes
Movie Review Tusk