TUSK Review

There is instinctively something cool and edgy about a movie like Tusk. It is not that the final film is guaranteed to possess those anticipated qualities, but the prospect of the components coming together with the specific style and tone in which it has been composed allow it to exude an effortless cool factor. A factor that attracts people to become interested in it based purely on the feeling of wanting to be "in" on the conversation. There is somewhat of an exclusivity to the material because it is understood from the outset to be slightly off-kilter and a project only a certain kind of crowd or film fan will "get". With those kinds of expectations in check I walked into the latest horror/comedy mash-up from writer/director Kevin Smith (Clerks, Red State) with cautious optimism. I was excited for the material, it seemed more akin to Smith's talents of writing talkative, funny characters while meshing ridiculously with the horror genre he tried his hand at with his previous feature. While Red State was more a scary movie in the vein of gross-out violence than actual scares it had more style and directorial competency than almost anything Smith had done in the past. In Tusk, he leverages the genre he's experimenting in with the one he knows best and to that effect, he is on to something more interesting here. For the first fifty or so minutes of the film I was hooked as the beguiling premise was still allowed a shade of mystery, an air of tension as we waited to see what exactly our antagonist, Howard Howe (Michael Parks looking strangely like Bryan Cranston), planned to do with the main character of this story. It is when Smith is faced with the challenge of delivering on what the premise, trailer and spectacular poster promises that he fumbles toward the finish line. He goes weird, but not strange enough. It is gruesome, but not as detailed or disgusting as it easily could have been (especially given certain set-ups). It could be chocked up to the idea that Smith was trying to be more subtle with his allusions, but as Justin Long's Wallace Bryton likes to brag, his viewers like him real and raunchy and so he tries to be real raunchy. Smith has written by that rule his entire career and I doubt he would stop now considering he is as much in his element here as ever before.

Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) shares a cup of tea with Howard Howe (Michael Parks).
The film was essentially born from a conversation on Smith's podcast with co-host Scott Mosier about a man who apparently put out a classified concerning a room for rent where the only charge was the requirement the renter dress up like a walrus for two hours a day. From this bizarre ad Smith and Mosier began developing the premise even further until it turned into what we now have as the full length feature. They have clearly taken liberties with this "based on actual events" tagline and turned the extremely odd into the extremely disturbing. I haven't listened to the episode in which the film was cultivated so I have no other context for the film other than what promotional material I've seen leading up to the film, but from that alone was more than interesting enough to get me psyched for where someone like Smith might take things. Why so interesting you might ask? Essentially this is a story about a podcaster who travels to the great white north in search of an interesting story to base a show around when he stumbles upon a mysterious seafarer who wants to turn him into a walrus. Ridiculous, right? Even laughable. That said, one has to wonder how you might even come to execute a film with this kind of description and come away with something worth anyone's time without it coming off as little more than a complete joke. In attempting to succeed at this Smith has stuck to his roots and what he knows best as he, maybe for the first time in any film, gives insight to the world of what it's like to host a radio show on the internet. Podcasting is still a very new deal in terms of broad public perception, many of which likely don't understand its point or purpose and so it is interesting first that Smith chose to stick with the occupation he currently enjoys most as that of his main characters. Bryton and partner in crime Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) host a show known as the "Not-See Podcast" that sounds rather grating in the few glimpses we get of it, but more than that it is apparently very successful. Smith also adds the foil of a love interest in the form of Genesis Rodriguez that gives the second half of the film more of an arc while allowing it to delve into the conventional which, with this premise, is rather disappointing.

What makes the former half of Tusk worth the endeavor of viewing the entire thing is that of the way in which Smith both verbally and visually presents the engaging set-up. We are delivered a very hip, very current main character in Long's lead podcaster that is smart enough to get the inside jokes, but stupid enough to become a cliche. He finds minimal fame in performing his podcasting duties and allows himself to succumb to the trappings of fame as if he were miles ahead in the relevancy scale. His hipster mustache is annoying and rather gross, while Osment's Teddy is criminally underdeveloped for the revelations that take place along the way. We are given glimpses of Bryton's relationships with both Teddy and girlfriend Ally through flashbacks as Wallace remains trapped in Howe's walrus wonderland which only service to make us dislike our suspected hero in the first place. Suspected because that is what we expect Long to play going in, but that his character isn't exactly a likable guy while still managing to incorporate a fair amount of humor and charisma is the obvious fact that if we don't like him we don't really care about what happens to him-in fact, do we begin to think he deserves what happens to him? This is all besides the point of how we become entranced in the situation at hand for despite Long's Wallace not being attractive, his past and affiliations being rather shaky and the unnecessary trek those affiliates go on it is the correspondence between he and Parks' recluse that stimulates the kind of deeply scarred psychological stream of consciousness that the premise promised. As noted prior, one of Smith's greatest strengths has always been in his dialogue and that comes into major play here. When Wallace and Howard have their first encounter and exchange stories with one another in interesting fashion there is that evasive spark. Simply keeping up with the language and style in which Howard speaks is a task in itself yet Smith makes it sounds effortless as does Parks performance in which he spews the flowery language of yesteryear as only someone with his exterior and cracked vocals could. This combination of writing and performance give way to the single great scene in the film. Within the countless literary references and break downs of generational chasms we glimpse what the entirety of Tusk could have been.

Wallace Bryton finds himself in an undesirable situation in Tusk
Everything aside, there isn't really anything else to compare to Tusk. It is extremely strange in the way it all comes together as none of these parts would seemingly fit if presented on a board yet Smith makes that work somehow. He has elements of a procedural and a horror film wrapped up in this broad comedy where audiences reach the point they're not sure if they're supposed to laugh or not-which I thought was pretty great. Then again, I take a step back and realize what could have been and what is sitting right in front of me and I can't help but think about all of the different ways the film could have unfolded or what I would have done differently. Without going into spoilers, it would have been more entertaining from where I'm sitting if Teddy and Ally decided the douchebag Wallace wasn't worth saving or interpreted his cries for help as nothing more than a lame joke and left him to fend for himself. This would not only have given the narrative an unexpected turn, but more it would have given the script the darker shadings it so clearly wants to gravitate towards while keept a net of dark humor across the proceedings. This would have also still left room for the introduction of one Guy Lapointe (whose alter ego is best left unnamed) and his investigation into the hunt for Howe whom he's been tracking for years, but with a more complete character arc than the one he gets with Teddy and Ally still involved. Granted, with a story as ridiculous as this it is fair to say there are so many possibilities in which this could have gone to just be pleased it's as coherent as it is. While it clearly has no fear in going as far as it wants to it never feels like it is far enough or at least not as graphic as it should be in order to be as sick and twisted as it purports itself to be. It's a difficult line to walk and though it is clear Smith does his best to incorporate not only elements of multiple genres, but to truly meld them together it just didn't work completely. It had me in the beginning, but by the time we reach Lapointe's second blubbering monologue I was checking my watch and wondering why we were spending more time on the investigation and not more time within the mind of Howe and what drove him to need to bond with a walrus. Also, Justin Long needs to be in more things.