Tusk (Leeds International Film Festival) Review
Howard Howe (Michael Parks) is entertaining a guest with stories from his various exploits. His guest, Wallace (Justin Long), is seemingly rapt, enjoying every odd little detail and historical name drop. It’s hard to tell if Wallace is actually impressed by Howe’s story or if he’s just amused by an old man’s ramblings. What we do know is that when Wallace collapses, after raving about his unusual tasting tea, he’s almost certainly in for a world of hurt.
Tusk conceptually should be a horror movie. Its plot, in which a shock-jock podcaster is captured and brutally transformed by a reclusive psychopath into something not quite human, has all the hallmarks of a horror movie and a body-horror in particular. But the film doesn’t seem all that concerned with building tension or focusing on the horrific aspects of the transformation. The film is far more concerned with stories, endless stories, told by multiple people for various different reasons. If you were to take a stopwatch out and time every moment the film stops (and literally stops, as the camera is often immobile during these grand monologues) for someone to wax lyrical about various topics you’d probably find the film was largely made up of talking. Now this in itself isn’t a bad thing - some of my favourite films are literally just people talking - but the problem here is that this talking is very rarely tied into character, occasionally kills the narrative momentum, and can often just feels like people babbling. As such when Kevin Smith describes the film as a podcast movie I have a tendency to agree with his assessment, even if I’m not a hundred percent sure what the definition of a podcast movie actually is.
For fans of Kevin Smith the movie being largely about people talking should be of no surprise, but even with my limited experience of Smith’s filmography, Tusk has all the hallmarks of a minor work. There is a haphazard quality to the film and it often feels neither fish nor fowl, with the conceptual horror elements sitting uncomfortably against how the film is actually constructed. Tusk is filmed like a comedy, brightly lit and often statically framed, but the transformation elements of the film are very much horror. Combining horror and comedy is fine, but it’s only ever really successful if the film is willing to engage with the visual language of horror films. What makes Shaun of the Dead and American Werewolf In London work as horror comedies is that they construct themselves as horror movies and then build their jokes into that framework. Because Smith doesn’t try and evoke a horror movie atmosphere with the film, what you’re left with is a very standard comedy, with a horrific visual at its centre.
The film is also hampered by a real slackness and lack of narrative drive which makes its 102 minute runtime feel a lot longer. The problem is that the film blows it’s comparative load a little too early, with most of its major incidents and the entirety of the transformation taking place in the first half. Halfway through the film we’ve seen the full extent of Wallace’s metamorphosis which is essentially the punchline to the entire film. If the first 45 minutes of the film were its entirety, a part of a horror anthology for example, I’d have gripes with some production choices, but I’d admit that overall it was quite effective. However the film still has an entire third act to work through, and with Wallace rendered mute Smith no longer can rely on his one strength as a filmmaker, his conversational dialogue. Seeming to understand this, the film diverts its attention away from Wallace, and to his girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) and best friend Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) who are searching for him. Whilst you could never class the film as having razor sharp focus up until this point, the switch in perspective is still fairly abrupt and not helped by the addition of another new character who dominates a good fifteen minutes of the movie but doesn’t actually have much of an impact on the plot at all.
Johnny Depp, wearing a silly hat, shows up at the start of the second half of the film as Guy Lapointe a Quebecois ex-cop who has been tracking down Howe. Lapointe delivers a monologue to Ally and Teddy which manages to do the impossible trick of actually feeling longer than the movie it is part of. Framed by a standard head and shoulder shot, and the occasional push in, the film holds on Lapointe’s every word (delivered in a horrific, and at times impenetrable, Quebocois accent) as he rambles on. His simple monologue is embellished with seemingly every thought going through his brain and a hideous focus on scatological humour. It as if Smith had exactly 20 minutes of Depp footage to work with and decided to use EVERY, SINGLE, SECOND of it. Even more frustratingly the scene feels oddly placed within the movie, building slowly but surely to the revelation that Lapointe thinks Howe is building a monster.
However the scene pretty much immediately preceding this is the full bodied reveal of Wallace’s transformation, in all its brightly lit glory. It feels like the kind of monologue that could have worked whilst cross cut with the reveal of the surgery done to Wallace, crescendoing with the reveal as the monologue ends. But it doesn’t and as such we’re waiting for the characters to catch up with us. To make matters worse we then immediately get a flashback to Lapointe’s meeting with Howe way back when, which essentially involves Lapointe in his borderline indecipherable Quebecois accent talking at Howe. When Howe does talk back he’s using, for some reason, a thick southern drawl and the result is perhaps the most incomprehensible cinematic exchange since Stallone and Rourke’s heart to heart in The Expendables.
Part of me thinks that maybe I’m missing the joke. The audience I was with seemed to eat it up, but it also felt it was specifically made for them. Cobbled together from in-jokes and introverted memes, and to an outsider it is just baffling. Even the likes of Michael Parks can’t save it, giving his all in the early running (where he benefits from the more quiet, elegiac, material) but being utterly consumed as soon as Howe is required to be a broader sort of villain.
If you’re someone who listens to the SModcast or gets what #Walrus Yes stands for then you’ll probably get something out of it as the film was essentially created, or at least pitched, during an episode of the SModcast and rallied into being by Smith’s most devout fans.
For everyone else the experience is akin to listening to some anecdote shared by close friends, that you just don’t understand the context of.
‘Tusk’ had its UK premiere at Leeds International Film Festival. More information about the festival can be found here. It will open across the country in December.
As part of Leeds International Film Festival Kevin Smith did a SKYPE Question and Answer session after the film. For those interested it can be listened to on the Leeds International Film Festival Youtube Channel here