Friday, September 19, 2014

Review: Tusk

by Patrick Bromley
I don't even know how to start talking about this one.

Kevin Smith's latest film, Tusk, is unlike any movie he has made. It's actually unlike most movies I've seen, for better and for worse. It is a movie that wants to be a horror film except when it wants to be a broad, silly comedy. Sometimes those two tones co-exist, creating something uneasy and unique. Often, though, they slam up against one another. If the comedy doesn't completely cancel the horror out, it certainly dulls the impact.

Or maybe it doesn't. Maybe this is exactly the kind of movie Smith wanted to make. He took a crazy premise -- a mad scientist type wants to turn another human being into a walrus -- and made a movie out of it. That fact alone should be applauded. That the movie is sometimes quite good is astounding. Even when it isn't (when it gives way to Smith's lesser tendencies or when the jarring tonal shifts muck things up), it's never less than utterly, watchably fascinating. This is a movie I could talk about for days.
Justin Long plays Wallace, an L.A. hipster (by way of New Jersey) who hosts a podcast, "The Not See Party," where he travels the country and collects stories of unusual people, which he brings back to the show to describe to his friend/co-host, Teddy (Haley Joel Osment, all growns up). He travels north to Canada to meet with the "Kill Bill kid," who cut off his own leg while practicing with a samurai sword in his garage and had the amputation uploaded to YouTube. When that doesn't work out, Wallace calls an audible by finding a curious ad in a bar restroom: a stranger describes a life of adventure at sea and is now looking for companionship. That man is Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a rich, eccentric recluse with a flare for storytelling and a very peculiar interest: his greatest friendship, he explains, was with a walrus. Now he wants to turn Wallace into a walrus. While Teddy and Wallace's girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) enlist the help of a former detective (an actor whose identity has been spoiled everywhere but which I will not spoil; he's billed as his character name, "Guy Lapointe") to track Wallace down, Howard Howe begins making...changes.

What initially began as a conversation between Smith and producer Scott Mosier on their SModcast podcast (this has to be the first movie that has a "based on the podcast" screen credit) eventually morphed into this strange, messy, singular film. Clips from that podcast play out over the closing credits of the movie, and it's fascinating to hear just how closely the finished film adheres to what Smith laid out in that impromptu discussion. Is that part of the joke? That he shot the first thing he came up with? Or were the ideas really so weird and strong that they deserved to be written and filmed as-is?

One could accuse the movie of being a totally self-indulgent in-joke. That's accurate. I also think Smith would cop to it -- it's practically the fuel driving him to make the film. Therein lies part of its charm. It's a movie that feels like it was made on a dare, one in which Smith answers to no one. He brought a film to life (in wide release, no less) based on a joke he made on his own podcast. His longtime best friend and former co-star is a producer. His wife is a producer. She has a bit part, as does his daughter. This is Kevin Smith doing whatever the fuck he wants, and even if the movie is not for you (and it's not going to be for a lot of people), we movie fans ought to be excited about anyone getting that kind of artistic freedom. If he fails, let him fail on his own terms. At least it's something that feels like nothing else that's out there right now, and like nothing else Smith has made before.
Well, almost. I don't know if it's because he didn't trust the horror aspects of the story or if he really just can't resist inserting a bunch of comedy into the proceedings, but any momentum Tusk is able to build is constantly getting interrupted by jokes. At first, it's ok. We meet Wallace in his natural environment, hanging out with his friends, bantering with his girlfriend, and everything feels like a Kevin Smith movie. Gradually, though, it starts to get creepier and weirder, but Smith still can't stop himself from making a bunch of jokes about the way Canadians talk or the things (he claims) they hold dear. It didn't bother me that I didn't laugh. Comedy is subjective. What bothers me is that the comedy feels cheap and obvious. Lazy even.

And then Michael Parks shows up and Tusk starts to really feel like it could be something. Parks is the kind of actor who makes every movie better just by being a part of it. He was previously the best thing about Smith's Red State, and his performance in Tusk is every bit as good (actually better, as he's afforded the chance to act more than just one note). Smith gives him dialogue that's eccentrically verbose -- all purple prose and oddball digressions -- but it's downright hypnotic. His initial scenes with Long, who is fine playing an insufferably obnoxious prick (and certainly commits once things go where they're going), are the best in the movie.

Eventually, the film takes a turn and goes further than I expected it to go (at least at that point in the story). It's very, very dark and genuinely disturbing. Finally, with all the goofing and joking out the way, Smith has doubled down and made a real live horror movie.
Just one scene later, though, a new character is introduced who doesn't just shift the movie back to comedy -- he downright derails it into cartoonish farce. It's then that Smith's intentions become clear: it's all supposed to be funny. Yes, there are images that are grotesque and disturbing, but they're all in the service of a big goof. I won't say that comedy and horror can't exists simultaneously; after all, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is one of my favorite horror movies. The difference there is that the laughs come from the horror -- they're queasy, macabre punchlines inside of a broad, twisted movie. The comedy in Tusk exists outside the horror...or should I say the horror exists outside the comedy? It becomes apparent that the few genuinely unsettling moments in the movie got there almost by accident -- by Smith amusing himself and going as far as he possibly could not to upset us, but to prove to us that he could. It's all but confirmed hearing the podcast clip during the end credits in which Smith laughs as he ad-libs the plot that he would eventually put in the actual movie. He wants it all to be funny. The entire movie is one big "can you believe we're doing this?" gag.

Those jarring shifts happen again and again. A scene will start to go somewhere and then get cut off by a flashback or a change in perspective, switching to the outside world for subplots or extra exposition. Would the movie have been better if Smith had just stayed in the room with Parks and Long? Perhaps. He initially seemed to think so, as one of the tenets he originally laid out on the podcast (Episode 259: "The Walrus and the Carpenter") was that the movie never leave the two of them. It at least would have rid the film of its Guy Lapointe problem -- which, if I'm being fair, will be some people's favorite thing about the movie and an absolute dealbreaker for others. This is that kind of movie: one that inspires strong reactions. It's been a long time since Smith made a film in which both critics and audiences alike could have a passionate response to the text and not just to him.

One of the charms of Smith's early work is how personal it felt -- he was pulling from his own life, his own experiences, his own heartache and mining it for both comedy and truth. There are personal touches in Tusk, too, but they're fairly obvious: Wallace is a successful podcaster with a devoted audience who hangs on his every word, same as Smith. The truly interesting autobiographical detail that sneaks into the film is pretty much a throwaway, as Wallace argues with his girlfriend about how he's changed and hardened. Old Wallace, he argues, was a sentimental pussy who trafficked in Star Wars puns (it's hard not to hear that and assume Smith is referencing himself in his Clerks days). New Wallace is a mercenary asshole -- a guy who gives himself license to behave however he wants because, he argues, it's what his fans want. It's all too easy to hear a bit of Smith speaking directly to his critics. Don't like this "new" Kevin Smith? Too bad. I'm not for you. I'm for the fans. I suppose Tusk is the result.
I want to believe there's a message somewhere in here. The best I can come up with is that it's a morality tale targeted at hipsters. With his ironic mustache and his podcast devoted entirely to mocking people from a position of superiority, Wallace is the true American douchebag. His plight could be seen as the logical result of poking the hornets' nest one too many times; it's all well and good for him to make fun of people he sees as weird or lame or worthy of mockery, but some people aren't going to put up with that. Some people aren't just goofballs. Some people mean that shit. Howard Howe means it. Let that be a lesson to all of you, hipsters.

There's so much to say about the screenplay of Tusk and Smith's intentions in bringing it to the screen that I haven't even touched upon the fact that it's his best film from a purely technical perspective. James Laxton's photography is, in its best moments, handsome and foreboding in the way he bathes Howe's mansion in shadow. Christopher Drake's score is effective. To say that it's the most one of Smith's movies has ever looked and felt like a real movie sounds condescending, but Smith is the first guy to admit that mise-en-scène has never been his strongest suit. His writing has always been the star. Tusk finds him stretching even further as a filmmaker than Red State, which was over-directed to the point of being bogged down in self-conscious style. This one is more ambitious, more accomplished. It might just be Smith's first movie that's better directed than it is written.

Did I like Tusk? Not exactly, but I still don't even know if I could say that for sure. There are things to like about it and even its badness is interesting. I'd much rather Smith continue to work quickly on personal, oddball movies like this than doing for-hire directing gigs like Cop Out (a movie I don't even hate). It's a complete tonal mess and its comedy is rarely funny. It shifts gears just when it's getting good and never really recovers, save for a closing scene that's simultaneously absurd and haunting -- the one moment in the movie in which the mixture of comedy and horror works organically. Perhaps it comes too late. Still, there's something about the film that I can't quite shake, and that's not to be too easily dismissed. Tusk is either disastrously awful or secretly good. The truth is probably somewhere in between. It's not one or the other. It's both.

#walrusdunno

30 comments:

  1. I listen to Smodcast every week and it's been an interesting journey listening and reading about the development of this walrus project since I heard that walrus and the carpenter podcast. I was excited about it at first because he was really passionate about it and I thought hey he might turn this into something pretty good. But as time went on and he kept talking about his progress with it, it almost seemed like it was turning into a self satisfying endeavor proving to himself that he could turn one of his silly podcast ideas into a movie. I like that he's doing something different but if you look at his next few projects they are all based on ideas from his various podcasts and they aren't all great. His next one seems to be him saying hey I can make a movie starring my own daughter! I will totally see tusk but from reading your review I had a fear confirmed of mine that the movie would go way too overboard with Canada jokes (which is all smodcast is now. See isn't the great white north so quirky and funny?! they say abute instead of about! hahaha) it gets pretty repetitive. I was hoping he'd stick more to the horror because I think there's a good horror movie in tusk if he had played it straight. I'm curious to check it out and see what he's come up with. im a fan of his I just wish he could get out of his own way sometimes and set the bar just a little higher for himself. Thanks for the review Patrick.

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    1. Travis, I echo your sentiment and also wish Smith would get out of his own way and set the bar just a little higher for himself. He seems to have a decent work ethic, but what he creates is often at odds with what he seems to be capable of. This was one I was nervous about and, based on Patrick's review, rightfully so. Still, I'll be watching it if it ever comes to my neck of the woods.

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    2. Heath I think it's opening fairly wide this weekend. I know it's playing at atleast 3 theaters in my area. I will go into it with light expectations but I think it will be an interesting curiosity of a movie. We shall see.

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  2. Another film I have not heard of. Good work Patrick.
    I am very happy to see Kevin make the film he want too. We all know he has had run ins with critics and in this country he has had some films released and refused to give critic screenings. If I remember correctly he said " If they want to see my movie they should pay like everyone else" And it sounds like he is purposely doing his own thing. Fair enough
    From the sound of the review its hard not to be interested in this and Michael Parks is always worth watching.

    As for comedy horror. TCM2 is great. I also love Braindead.

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  3. Great review Patrick - I love the ones where you're feeling ambiguous - a weaker person would feel the need to come down on a particular side, but you're honest about your uncertainty and it always helps me properly calibrate my expectations. I was already interested in this, now I'm more so, not because I think it's going to be really good, but because I'm sure it's going to be interesting.

    I used to kinda like Smith's love of Canada - you know, that pseudo-pride you get when someone from away talks about where you're from (like YOU feel when the King of England talks about Chicago or something), but it's starting to feel like condescension - yeah, yeah, we're quaint and cute, I get it.

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    1. And a great comment, Sol! I wish all Internet sites had comment sections with intelligent, informed, curious movie lovers.

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    2. Aw, thanks Erika - and I know, I love this place!

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  4. Great review Patrick. I haven't been able to stop thinking about this movie since I saw it last night.

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  5. I have to confess, I'm kind of very excited to see this.

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    1. I'm pretty excited as well. A24's always gets my attention.

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  6. great review. Smith is easy to dismiss due to his Smith-ness. As expected you look past that to what is being created while also being informed appropriately by it, nicely done. Im very interested to see this now.

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  7. Badassdigest aka the Pitchfork Media of movie blogs (if Pitchfork didn't already have an ultra pretentious movie blog). http://badassdigest.com/2014/09/19/fantastic-fest-review-tusk-is-a-way-different-type-of-weird-than-youd-expec/

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    1. I started to read the review just because you posted and i was curious why, But with an opening line that negative I litterally gave up 2.5 lines in. I need not read any further. I'll take your word for it that they stick in the pitchfork deeper. Deep breath, Sigh....

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    2. Its garbage writing that suggests you see the film ironically because "haha its cool to hate Kevin Smith, buy a ticket and laugh because he tried to do something different".

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  8. Your review really makes me want to see this. BUT... I fear I will have nightmares forever. #walrusdunno

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  9. You should do more podcasts Erika. You and Patrick are really funny together. ;)

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  10. Just got back from seeing Tusk and it definately is....interesting. It's definately a tale of 2 halves in there. I greatly preferred the creepy slow-build of the first half to the rather farcical second half. It's like watching the first hour of Alien, then immediately switching to the last hour of Pink Panther. I like both, but I'm not sure they go together. Or, as I described it to my girlfriend, "it was like having lobster for dinner, and cotton candy for dessert."

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    1. The Pink Panther was going through my head a lot. Great description.

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  11. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing it, if for no other reason than to see which side of the fence I fall on. I must say though, I have a great deal more respect for Patrick's review after reading the "reviews" over at Badass Digest. The way Evan and Devin both are trying so desperately to say something dramatic really made them come off as immature, and frankly I'm not sure I'm interested in visiting their site again.

    If you don't like a filmmaker or their work, that's fine, I can certainly name some I don't care for, but I frankly find it very frustrating when a reviewer tries to pretend they have a movie a fair chance, but then fills that same review with insults to that filmmaker as a person and claims their entire body of work is terrible. But then again, I believe Devin once claimed Michael Bay was a great filmmaker, so he gave us all an easy pass to disregard his opinions.

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    1. I might be out the loop but baddassdigest is new to me. It might be a great informative website. But when a review starts "Tusk is a bad movie by a bad filmmaker who has given up trying and now longs to find virtue in not giving a shit." Sorry but this is just not true and I wont be bothering with that site again. Nobody is saying Kevin Smith is the best filmmaker but he certainly aint the worst. You need to see everyfilm with an open mind. You may or may not of liked Redstate but you cant say he wasent trying.
      And Micheal bay a great filmmaker. Mmm what can I say....

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    2. BAD can sometimes have a tendency to be hyperbolic and superior -- there are a few things that the site will remind you again and again you are wrong for liking (among them Stargate, the title of Batman v. Superman, Kevin Smith and any Star Trek that isn't the original series). I still like the site and think they have a lot of incredible writing. Sometimes I just have to blow some things off. But thanks for the kind words, @Michael Kidd. I struggled with this review.

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    3. Came here to say this. Devin Faraci's review may as well have been written before he saw the movie. I don't know why I clicked on it expecting anyting aside from vitriol.

      I'm a life-long Smith apologist, as well as a regular listener of Smodcast. I remember laughing quite a bit as he and Mosier came up with this idea, and as you said, it's truly an achievement that he's taken it this far. It'll likely be mentioned in every review with a heaping tone of condescension, so it's nice to see Patrick actually see it for what it is. This review is measured and thorough, and I appreciate that.

      I'm going to try to catch Tusk tonight, and I look forward to the rest of the True North Trilogy (even if Yoga Hosers stars his daughter and the third one is called Moose Jaws). I honestly think we're going to look back at this period of Smith's career and cite him as someone willing to step outside of his comfort zone. You don't see too many writer/directors doing it.

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  12. Strangest movie I've seen this year. I'm still not sure whether I liked it or not. A lot of humor felt out of place to me. I wasn't a fan of Guy Lapointe. The second half of the movie surprised me. I wasn't expecting it to go that far. It was very disturbing. I think this is a step in the right direction for Kevin Smith. Hopefully, he continues to make interesting movies.

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  13. So I saw Tusk last night.... And sadly I thought it was kind of a disaster. Like Patrick said it has some major tone problems and I thought the pacing and attempted humor torpedoed the movie in a big bad way. Scenes went on for way too long, characters and storylines were introduced that didn't need to be there and the way Kevin Smith tried to jam in all these jokes from his podcasts was almost embarrassing. I thought Michael Parks was great and almost sold the premise to me but after awhile I started to tune out during his ramblings and there's a scene late in the movie between him and the "mystery guest" that was honestly one of the worsts scenes I think I've seen in a movie all year. I couldn't figure out why smith thought it was a good idea to put it in or why a certain character needed a flashback at all. A lot of the movie just baffled me. The horror was comedic, the main character played by Justin Long is unsympathetic and the only way we are supposed to know that he's a good guy worth rooting for is because his girlfriend says he used to be a good guy a long time ago. That's all we have to go on. I thought there was a scene towards the beginning when Justin Long realizes the situation he is in and we get a sense of dread and uneasiness and Michael Parks is fantastic in the scene but it's the only one that I thought worked in the movie unfourtunately. It was fascinating to watch how much the mark was missed and it's really sad because I am the audience for this movie. I love Kevin Smith I love weird horror movies but man.... #walrusdissapointed

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  14. I may be in the minority, but I think a lot of the weird tonal shifts in this movie were intentional. The jarring nature of it all is what kept me intrigued. I didn't fully understand what Smith was going for until the last 15 minutes or so. The movie was a complete trip. I can't think of any film that's as back and forth. With that being said, a lot of it is terrible and doesn't work at all, a lot of it does. For every "omg, this is fantastic" there's an "omg, this is garbage". I agree with this review completely on the uncertainty of it all. The film is a mess. But I think its kinda supposed to be, maybe? Whatever the case, I loved every second of it .

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  15. So I just saw "Tusk" not knowing a got damn thing about it (stopped reading Patrick's review after the first two lines, so nothing got spoiled) in an empty theater (five people total) in which I was the only one laughing. Been tuned out of the Kevin Smith train for a while, so I didn't even know it was based on one of his podcasts. Most people who see "Tusk" will see it already knowing the basics, but personally not knowing where this deranged thing was headed was half the fun. By the time the movie got to the final epic pushover duel between Michael Parks (who starts great but, like the movie, loses steam and appeal the further it goes along) and Justin Long (unlikable throughout) I was laughing outloud at the absurdity of what I was watching. "Tusk" at least got reactions from me (a few laughs, mostly at the so-obvious-it's-lame-but-repetition-broke-me-down-and-made-me-laugh Canadian jokes), unlike the four other people who only reacted with derisive laughter when the human Walrus is revealed.

    "Tusk" feel like the deranged bastard child of "The Human Centipede" movies (which I haven't seen but this movie strangely makes me want to check those out... Scary Movie Month starts pretty soon! ;-P) and William Castle's "House on Haunted Hill." Smith's technical skills as a director have clearly improved since I last saw one of his movies, but as Patrick says, for a guy known for his writing "Tusk" shows him being a better director than a writer who can't get comedy horror to work in tandem but constantly butting/canceling one another. When Wallace is thrown into the water and he sees the carcass of someone else that was butchered into walrus form it was shocking and startling. And then, right on cue, we get Guy Lapointe to deflate that perfectly-realized horror bit with some laughs. Same thing with the ending, it's not perfect but it feels somewhat cathartic and poignant... followed by audio of the podcast killing whatever good will the ending had engendered. Aaaaarrggghhh!

    Oh well, at least the kid from "The Sixth Sense" got some work and now I know who Genesis Rodriguez is (who besides looking smoking hot gives the closest the movie has to a believable human character you can relate to).

    P.S.: HOLY SHIT! I just checked IMDB. That was ____ ____ as Guy Lapointe?! I had no freaking idea, wow! Sad to say, as tired as I got from watching the character waste screen time, that's some of the best acting he's done in a while.

    I'm glad I saw "Tusk" on the big screen and it's nice to see Kevin move out of his comfort zone, but since he's still doing stuff based on his ideas or circle of admirers/co-workers it still feels limited in scope and ambition (and his next two movies sound no better). 20 years after "Clerks" introduced him Smith's growth as a director still has to be measured in baby steps, and that's just sad.

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  16. I thought it was only fair to come back now and comment as I have just seen the film.

    Im am sighing as I am writing this. I don't know what to say. I love Micheal Parks but this is not his best performance. It is interesting and Strange but is it enjoyable? I'm sorry to say I am not really sure. The best comment I can make is I think it would of made a great 30 minute Twilight Zone episode. But it was a stretch for it to be a full movie.

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