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Film Review: Tusk

on September 19, 2014, 12:01am

Randall Colburn (RC): Tusk opens with a roar. No, not that of a walrus — we’ll get there — but of podcasters. As hosts of the exploitive Not-See Podcast, Wallace and Teddy (Justin Long and Haley Joel Osment, respectively) are overcome with belly laughs, trading barbs over the latest schmuck to humiliate himself on the internet. It’s an obnoxious beginning and not likely to endear you to its protagonists, but it fits. See, Tusk has its roots in Kevin Smith’s SModcast, specifically a chuckle-heavy episode from 2013, wherein Smith and co-host Scott Mosier conjure a Hammer-style horror flick about a madman’s attempt to turn a young man into a walrus. Now, 15 months later, that’s exactly what we have, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t Smith’s best movie since Dogma.

It’s also, by the longest of long shots, his most bizarre, a glorious clusterfuck that might as well forgo its theatrical run and sprint straight to the midnight masses. Because it’s not quite the dark comedy the podcast foretold, nor the unrelenting horror promised by the trailer; it’s something much, much weirder. If anything, Tusk is best described as a black comic fairytale, something the brothers Grimm would’ve penned on a few tabs of acid.

What are your initial impressions, Mike?

Michael Roffman (MR): Oy. Where to begin? Black comic fairytale is a start. The film oscillates between comedy and horror enough that it’s without a doubt a dark, dark farce, probably one of the sharpest of its kind in years. Smith has really taken notes on the horror genre as of late, specifically torture porn films, and what makes Tusk somewhat genius is the way it’s poking fun at that style while also giving viewers nightmares for weeks. Rest assured, this is a terrifying film, similar to David Cronenberg’s The Fly in that we’re watching a soul crumble as it loses its humanity. The long-awaited reveal is both painfully tragic and also horrifically perverse, confusing the senses like true comedy or horror should.

Regardless of the shocks, however, Tusk never attempts to sell itself as a serious beast, no pun intended. Justin Long’s Wallace is a Marc Maron-Chris Hardwick-Tom Leykis hybrid who parodies the entire podcast genre with his over-sensationalized humor that’s painfully unfunny. As you mentioned, Smith, also a fellow podcaster, knows this medium better than anyone else, and, at times, it feels as if he’s teasing his peers — specifically Maron. (Did you get a Maron vibe from Long? I thought it was almost uncanny.) Then there are the trademark Smithisms that sneak in, from the cartoonish portrayal of Canada to the oddball pop culture nods somehow never lost on any character.

It never feels like our world in Tusk, just as it never felt like our world in Smith’s Red Bank series — it’s too perverse. Even as a short pitch, the premise sounds comical, which explains why Long’s been having a blast selling it as “not just another human-walrus movie.” The problem is that most filmgoers will walk in looking for another horror movie, even with Smith’s name at the top. After all, there was very little comedy to 2011’s Red State, so why should anyone think any different here? That should be a concern.

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RC: It should absolutely be a concern, especially considering the best laughs Tusk has to offer are the ones born out of incredulity, not words. Once the walrus is revealed, theaters will probably be split down the middle in terms of laughter and gasps. Its a nasty construction, that suit, riddled with stitches and glistening folds, but it’s also brazenly cartoonish and worthy of an amused “what thaaaaa…” The scripted humor, on the other hand, is, if we’re being generous, hit or miss. Smith’s broad, broad jokes about Canada are positively dusty (a convenience store called Eh 2 Zed?), so base and outdated that they almost feel like parodies of themselves.

Thankfully, Long is a charismatic enough actor to pull them off. Though, much credit goes to Michael Parks as Wallace’s captor, the elusive Howard Howe. Similar to his role in Red State, the only saving grace of that film, Parks offers up another fiery performance, turning each of his walrus-loving, overwritten speeches into a symphony. Not every cast member is so lucky: Genesis Rodriguez, as Wallace’s long-suffering girlfriend, is saddled with sentimental monologues — sometimes delivered straight to the camera — that are as drippy and distracting as her subplot, which is dire but necessary. And then there’s Guy LaPointe, the Quebecian investigator played — in an uncredited turn — by one of this country’s most celebrated actors. I won’t spoil it for you, but Google will if you’re curious. LaPointe, buried beneath pounds of stage makeup and latex, shows up late in the film and essentially steals its focus for a solid 8 minutes. Some of it’s fun, but most of it’s unnecessary.

If I haven’t made myself clear, all this goes to show that Tusk suffers when focus shifts from Long and Parks. They’re a remarkable pair, disparate characters whose performance styles sit miles apart. Still, as compatible as the actors are together onscreen, I found myself mulling over the parallels between their characters. What are your thoughts, Mike? Ultimately, what is Tusk about?

MR: LaPointe was a saving grace, though. If Smith spent too much time with just Long and Parks, there would be quite a struggle to stave off the horror and retain any sense of parody. While the walrus suit can be written off as either perverse or horrific, the situation at hand is downright morbid. The way Parks strips Long of all humanity is so tragic, pathetic, and most of all, emasculating. It comes off that way because Smith spends so much of the film building up the stakes. Notice how Long has multiple diatribes about his own fame and success, or how Rodriquez spends 60% of the film in her underwear. Successful torture porn has to grasp at what’s being lost, aside from limbs and appendages, and with Tusk, there’s a sense that Smith zeroes in on the loss of masculinity.

Look no further than his transitions. Throughout the film, Smith switches back and forth between the past and the present. In one shot, he fades into Long receiving oral sex from Rodriguez, only to return to the scene of horror, where Parks is, well, servicing him. There’s even a sexually suggestive scene later in the second act in which Parks swims naked with Long, who’s unable to move in his walrus suit. It’s an act of submission that’s cruel and insufferable and a part of the downward spiral that strips Long of his masculinity, turning him into the monster that Smith contends was always inside him. That, ultimately, is what Tusk comes to represent: a morality tale. Given Smith’s Catholic upbringing, is that all a surprise? Still, there’s something to be said about Long and Parks both being self-processed storytellers — perhaps that ties into the Grimm fairy-tale element?

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RC: Yes, and it’s also interesting how Wallace and Howard represent storytellers from different eras. It’s easy to laugh when Wallace tells Howard he’s “a storyteller by trade,” if only because what he does on his podcast is so far removed from the campfire intimacy of Howard’s words. Yet what binds them both is the ways they both involve the listener; involvement in Howard’s stories disfigures you physically, but immersion in Wallace’s cruel, exploitive podcast disfigures yourself emotionally. There’s a selfishness at the heart of both their tales.

But back to masculinity, because that read on the film makes a lot of sense in the scope of Smith’s canon. So, so many of his films — most notably Clerks and Chasing Amy — center around men who feel spurned by the past sexual peccadilloes of significant others. While that’s not exactly the case in Tusk, there’s still the idea that, to be powerful, a man must live more, evolve more, and fuck more than the women in his life if he is to retain his manhood. Smith’s always portrayed such behavior as animalistic, but with Tusk he’s finally found a means to convey his themes physically, not verbally. For Smith, that’s huge.

Closing thoughts, Mike?

MR: It’s a strange film, one that’ll elicit laughs, gasps, WTF tweets, and, possibly, nightmares. What separates this from everything else in Smith’s recent catalogue is that he never loses focus. Tusk not only stays loyal to its original, stoned blueprint, but makes valiant efforts to elevate that material. Smith is very unforgiving here, so much to the point that he shatters any illusion of reality, which winds up saving this film. Because of that, Tusk does for zoos what Jaws did for beaches, A Nightmare on Elm Street did for sleeping, and A Silence of the Lambs did for skin lotion. ::shivers::

Trailer:

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