Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Tusk / review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Juvenile premise spurs tour de force of eccentricity, turns contemporary horror film formula on its head
As I walk out of a horror film, I’m typically thinking one of three things: great, so-so, or crap. However, every once in a while, there is another thought: did I like this film? Such was my initial reaction to director Kevin Smith’s Tusk (2014), a film whose premise involves a madman who wants to physically and psychologically transform another man into a walrus. Yes. You read that correctly.

Obnoxious LA-based shock jock Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), stuck in the “frozen shithole” of Canada, wants to find a “weirdo” interviewee to ultimately make fun of in his popular Not-See Party podcast.

Wallace ends up on the doorstep of Howard Howe, a reclusive ex-seafarer who has a boatload of adventure tales, and a few skeletons (human and otherwise) in the closet. Howe seeks to rekindle the bond he once developed with a walrus he named Mr. Tusk while stranded after a shipwreck. His strategy: make Wallace a walrus.

Directors of recent horror movies tend to manipulate their predominantly unmemorable characters through frightful settings (e.g., catacombs, haunted houses, etc). There’s nothing wrong with that. However, Kevin Smith, the brains behind Mallrats (1995), Dogma (1999), and Clerks (1994), tends to create talk-heavy films with quirkier characters. Tusk follows this strategy and in so doing, departs from—or maybe I should say, in tusk lingo, protrudes discernibly from—the current body of horror films.

One is often hard-pressed to identify something original that characters say in horror movies. Tusk, with its extended scenes of two or three characters talking, offers a smorgasbord of quotable gems. “You want characters?” Smith seems to ask those who consistently blast horror film casts. “You got them!” In Tusk, there are three such characters: the self-involved victim, the astute madman, and the comically eccentric detective.

The Self-involved Victim
Wallace Bryton, with his walrus-like name and moustache, is the type of guy who snaps at convenience store clerks and uses strangers’ backs as desks. He looks down on Canadians (“I don’t want to die in Canada”) and cheats on his girlfriend. His growing fame has gone to his head. This is most apparent when he interviews Howe. Wallace, “not-seeing” the threat inherent in Howe’s anti-human sentiments, examines the odd specimens Howe has accumulated and expresses (loudly and tactlessly) his observations. “Who are you? Rudyard fucking Kipling?”

Typically, films are wise to shy away from obnoxious protagonists, but Wallace, with his crude comments and gestures, contrasted with the literary allusions and deviant philosophies of Howe, captivates the viewer.

Justin Long’s performance as Darry in the film Jeepers Creepers (2001) revealed his strong talent for expressing shock and fear. It’s a talent that he fully exploits in Tusk, whether he’s in a drug-induced stupour and coming to terms with what’s happening to him, making a hushed emergency phone call, or screaming as Howe taunts him.

The Astute Madman

It’s difficult to portray a villain who’s both off his rocker and intelligent. Michael Parks pulls it off admirably with Howard Howe. “I don’t understand,” he says. “Who in the hell would want to be human?”

One never knows what is coming from the misanthropic Howe. He might quote Tennyson or Hemingway, tell an adventure story, or mimic his victim’s screams. He might laughingly sing a nursery rhyme, or he might growl. Howe, the sufferer of egregious childhood abuse, stifles laughter when a horrified Wallace discovers he’s been severely mutilated.

In one of the film’s most off-the-wall scenes (a flashback), Howe stands on a porch with detective Guy Lapointe (more on him later). Howe, pretending to be a dim-witted assistant children’s hockey coach, tries to coax Lapointe inside ostensibly to shoot a brown recluse (spider), but more likely to try to turn Lapointe into a walrus.

Though it probably won’t get credit due to the film’s outlandishness, Parks’s performance puts him in the company of Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter and Heath Ledger’s Joker. Howe. What a perfect name for a film like this. How will this turn out? How could a man do something like this? “The walrus,” he says, “is far more evolved than any man I’ve ever known.” Howe indeed!

The Comically Eccentric Detective

The credits reveal that an unknown actor named Guy Lapointe plays himself, a French-Canadian alcoholic investigator on the trail of Howe. Though Lapointe’s time in the film is limited, his crooked eye, stilted delivery, and odd mannerisms make a huge impression. Lapointe is ridiculous, but we can’t look away.

Lapointe’s main scene takes place in a restaurant in which he dominates a conversation with Wallace’s girlfriend Ally and fellow podcaster Teddy. It may be a fast food place, but Lapointe’s audience sits dumbfounded as he treats them to an idiosyncratic feast that’s less about what he’s saying, and more about what he’s doing. He stands up and smashes down his burger, pours hard liquor into his milkshake, and engages in a slew of other fascinating behaviors all while describing his history with Howe. 

People often comment on how many of today’s films (and society in general) never slow down. Guy Lapointe does slow down. At one point, he actually breaks from his twisted monologue to suck from his spiked milkshake while his audience waits—he even comments on his shake’s thickness—for him to continue. And the porch scene with Howe is legendary. Never has so much been communicated with so many words and so little actually said.

Lapointe even offers a bit of intrigue to the film. When the viewer looks closely, he or she might notice familiarity in the eyes, and the voice. That’s because Guy Lapointe is none other than Johnny Depp. It’s as if Smith has transformed one of the most well-known actors into a sideshow act to reinforce what’s happening in the film. Brilliant.

An Opinion Transformed
With Tusk, we get humor, we get gore, we get surprises, we get scares, and we get sadness. Kevin Smith stitches the surgical splatterpunk film like The Human Centipede (2009), the “find the bad guy before he kills his captive” film (think The Silence of the Lambs (1991)), and the dialogue of, well, a Kevin Smith film. Tusk both entertains and gives one an appreciation for the finer things in life, like his or her legs.

During your life, you might encounter a handful of people who are true characters. Some of these people are profound A-holes, some offer a twisted view of the world, and others are so quirky that they are worthy of a movie. Tusk treats us to all three in just over an hour-and-a-half.

Back to my initial question: did I like this film? My opinion on it has metamorphosed, slowly, from one of uncertainty to a walrus-sized yes. – Douglas J. Ogurek

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