(… whatever that means.)
Industry newcomer A24 Films deals in a very distinctive oeuvre. Look for mainstream, a-list talent delving into oddball projects with strong writing and fringe concepts, but modest budgets, and there’s where you’ll find A24. Sometimes the result is a bust (See: Obvious Child), but always, it’s interesting (See: The Rover). Always unusual (See: Spring Breakers). And sometimes, amazing (See: Under the Skin, Locke, Enemy, The Spectacular Now).
So it goes with Kevin Smith’s new disasterpiece of a film Tusk, the latest quintessentially A24 project. It’s totally unlike anything Smith’s ever done, yet with every classic Smith element used to mostly great effect. It’s a low-budget fractured fairytale – at brief moments, a relationship drama, bent comedy road trip, dialogue heavy contemplation on the human condition, satirical homage, and mostly a cheesy horror film. It’s a twisted, tonally conflicted skewering of mainstream filmmaking, and yet a fascinating and often warped bit of brilliance. Tusk may fizzle, given it’s many flaws, but it just might become the cult darling of the decade.
“Fact: Kevin Smith has never been photographed without his trademark hockey jerseys… or skinny.”
– Ben Affleck.*
Overtly, this is a story about Justin Long’s Wallace, a pod-caster who travels to Canada to interview (read: mock) a counterfeit Star Wars Kid who accidentally cut his own leg off imitating a scene from Kill Bill. (Kevin Smith is a big Quentin Tarantino fan). The kid has died, and not wanting to waste the trip, Wallace finds an old storyteller who seems might be a good replacement for the failed Kill Bill Kid interview. The storyteller, Howard Howe – played by Michael Parks (Kevin Smith is a big Michael Parks fan) – induces Wallace to travel some distance to a secluded mansion (requisite horror film location) where things go exactly as Howe has planned and completely not as Wallace expects. This is where the horror story begins. It’s not so much horror as a balance between horror and PG-13 torture porn. We get the sense of Eli Roth with less sadism but a humorous edge. In part, the humor comes from Howe’s truly demented plan, but equally from some pretty aweful make-up and effects, as well as Smith’s bizarro ideas of what this madman’s ultimate game plan would be. Let’s be clear: this guy is nuts.
Smith has stated he wanted to make this film in part to showcase Michael Parks’ acting ability – and this is definitely one area where Tusk hits a home run. A grand slam really. Parks’ Howe is meant to be a captivating storyteller – and he’s mesmerizing. When Wallace and Howe sit for tea, and Howe recounts his days in the Navy with Ernest Hemingway, it’s as if time stands still while he talks. This is also an example of Kevin Smith’s hallmark skill – dialogue. If there’s any doubt to Parks’ skill, he removes all with a second character he plays later in the film, if anything, channeling Red Skelton’s beloved Clem Kadiddlehopper character.
Complimenting Parks’ roles is the character Inspector Guy LaPointe, a fictional detective based on real life Canadiens hockey legend Guy LaPointe (Smith is a big hockey fan). LaPointe is actually played by Johnny Depp. Seriously – Johnny Depp is in this film. And, Depp hasn’t inhabited such a role since Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, or maybe Edward Scissorhands. He’s brilliant as LaPointe, evoking a modern Inspector Clueseau. This character is riotously funny and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a sequel centered on him.
Justin Long’s performance as douchey pod-caster Wallace begins typically for anything Long does. His stiff delivery is actually well suited to a cheesy interwebs personality. What’s truly interesting is where Long goes once the horror begins and straight dialogue – Long’s weak point – is replaced by a terrified captive who devolves psychologically as the situation grows more horrific. For this, Long immerses himself in the role and earns solid respect for his efforts.
Most other characters exist anecdotally in the film, with Haley Joel Osment sitting in as Wallace’s Ed McMahon laugh track sidekick while proving the most likeable character in the film, though with little to actually do. Also, Kevin Smith’s daughter and Johnny Depp’s daughter play a couple of Canadian convenience store clerks (Smith’s a big fan of convenience stores, Johnny Depp, and Canada).
Truly, Smith seems to want to evoke the simultaneous feel of 80’s screwball comedies and low-budget horror films from the same era. The effects are simultaneously morbid and yet corny, the motivations completely nonsensical, and the characters are fully committed to absurd agendas, with off the wall personalities. Smith goes so far as to quote Bob and Doug MacKenzie from Strange Brew, while Guy LaPointe is, at the very least, an homage to Rosie LaRose from that film. In fact, the more I think about it, the more structurally, tonally, comedically and satirically related to that earlier film Tusk seems. If not siblings, it’s a close cousin at the very least, and similarities to the Naked Gun series, Top Secret and/or Blake Edwards, as well as, largely, Sam Raimi’s early works and, slightly, early Elm Street and Halloween entries litter the film.
One note on a particularly obvious flaw in Tusk relates to tonal shifts. From time to time, Smith arrests the horror story and shifts to the relationship between Wallace, his girlfriend, and Osment’s sidekick character back in Los Angeles. Relationship drama and the intimate conversations inherent to them are another hallmark Smith trope. Unfortunately, while that storyline could work well in a different film, this becomes a series of jarring detours that just don’t work here. The idea of flipping between story-lines could work, but it needs to be something else – maybe more comedy, but not uncomfortable relationship minutia.
It’s difficult to say Tusk is a good film, but it’s definitely a curiosity. It’s the sort of film that’s embraced by disaffected teens and twenty-somethings as genius, while parents shake their heads in disgust, declaring “Kids today! What’s this world coming to?”
“I don’t wanna die in Canada!”
For me? I sat simultaneously captivated and bewildered as I watched, but after it was over a friend and I found ourselves discussing it at length – and laughing like idiots. Whatever it is, at least it’s interesting, and leaves an amiable enough impression – as long as this sort of thing is, um… you’re cup of tea.
Justin Long (above) doing some of his best work.
Also, it is not a verified fact that Ben Affleck has ever openly mocked Kevin Smith’s weight.