I just got home from seeing the new Kevin Smith film Tusk, and wanted to get my first impressions out there.
In case the title of this post isn’t clear enough, let me say it again:
THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. MAJOR SPOILERS. I WILL BE TALKING ABOUT RELEVANT PLOT POINTS HERE.
If you don’t want to know anything about the movie, leave now.
**Spoilers** Tusk – a review
Good. You stayed. So let’s talk about Tusk.
First, I am a Kevin Smith fan. He had me at the dialogue for Clerks, and I dream of having my own written dialogue approach that level of realism and spontaneity. I was happy when he released Red State, which did not, in my opinion, get the recognition that it deserved. It was basically everything I wanted to see in a film of his that I hadn’t really seen since Clerks.
With regards to Tusk, it is clear that Kevin Smith enjoyed writing this film. Really enjoyed it. You can feel the energy that he put into it in every frame. Which is good, because his gift for writing dialogue is undeniable, and the more enthused he is, the better his product turns out. By now, you will know the history of Tusk: its conception and germination on Smith’s Smodcast, and the fan-based approval of the idea. Tusk is, if nothing else, a victory for the power of social media. You will also know the general plot of the film, with Justin Long playing Wallace Bryton, a podcaster searching for another every-man to exploit for his listeners’ amusement, and his encounter with Michael Parks as reclusive, world-weary traveler Howard Howe. You will also know how it all goes suddenly so sideways. I won’t rehash it here.
Now, on to the meat of the matter.
What did I think of Tusk?
Well, I think that Michael Parks may be the most under-appreciated actor working in Hollywood today. Seriously. He’ll never get an Oscar nomination for appearing in a Kevin Smith film, but he needs to get nominated for something. His portrayal of Howard Howe is phenomenal. It is at once chilling and reassuring, maddening and pacifying. He really is that good. His opening exchange with Wallace is so relaxed and natural; it is clearly Smith at his best. The dialogue is great, even if Justin Long’s Wallace occasionally plays like too much of a pod-caster parody. Parks grounds this whole scene in his rock-steady delivery and believability.
After that initial exchange, Wallace life changes rapidly for the worse. Sometimes, it feels as if Smith was in such a hurry to get to the (admittedly) gruesome revelation of Wallace’s fate that he skims over a lot of opportunities for Howard to indulge Wallace (and the viewer) with more incredible tales that might deepen the understanding of his character and how he come to truly be in that state of mind. And though Smith does provide us with flashbacks of Howard’s fateful encounter with the original “Mr. Tusk,” it may have been more effective to explore more of the memories infesting the memorabilia displayed throughout Howard’s home. Those stories, like the one he spins to Wallace about Earnest Hemingway on D-Day, might have displayed not only Smith’s gifts and Parks’ mastery, but also provided glimpses into Howard’s soul so much more effectively than simply hammering on the walrus story.
As an aside: speaking of hammer, I loved the music playing over the dinner seen between Howard and Wallace. It had the same horror-movie vibe that came in all those old, Hammer studio-style films. Loved that part.
Anyway, those missed opportunities aside, Smith also provides us with a handy expositor in the character of Guy LaPointe, played by Johnny Depp, to add some not-totally-necessary background to the main story, although the glimpse of an earlier encounter with Howard in one of his alternate personas was a nice treat. Depp is wasted in this role. Or maybe he’s not. Maybe the role is a waste.
The sideline of the relationship between Wallace’s girlfriend (Ally) and best friend/co-host (Teddy) is predictable, and not completely necessary, either, other to provide a few furtive glances between the two when speaking to the Canadian police concerning Wallace’s disappearance, as well as their resolution at the end of the film, which I’ll get to in a moment.
So, for the length of the film, Smith teases us with the tale of the devolution of a man who has sold his soul for success at the hands of a man who has sold his soul in the attempt to gain forgiveness for a past sin. But Smith provides no rationale for the selection of Howard’s victims (yes, victims plural) in his attempt to assuage his guilt for the murder of Mr. Tusk. Despite Howard’s repeated recitation of the idea that no man should want to be a man, but a walrus, there is no rhyme or reason to how he selects his victims (subjects?). Whoever comes to his door is fair game. There is no other excuse. No explained redemption of a human being through conversion into a walrus. Nothing. The fact that Wallace is seemingly the embodiment of a man in need of reminding that he is a man is completely coincidental. It is, in many ways, as thin a plot point as any seen in the old Hammer studios days. At a modest running time of 102 minutes, Smith could easily have eliminated or condensed Guy LaPointe and expounded on this seemingly crucial oversight, creating a fuller, and subsequently more terrifying world for us to see.
Finally, though, Smith delivers with the epic battle between man (Howard, in a walrus suit) and Walrus (in Wallace). Wallace goes “full Walrus” and kills his tormentor, but at the loss of his remaining humanity.
But Smith kind of pusses out at the end.
With a half-hearted nod to The Fly II, Wallace lives, kept in a nearly abandoned zoo in Canada, visited over by Ally and Teddy. They have kept LaPointe from killing him, and Smith throws in a weak flashback of Ally telling Wallace how she misses him crying, back in the days before he was an internet sensation. “Crying proves we have a soul,” and we are left with Wallace’s walrus face running with tears as she and Teddy walk away. Despite his decent into his primitive nature, Wallace is left to live with himself, tortured in perpetuity by his friends, who have kept him alive in such a state, likely to assuage their own guilt over their affair.
And Ally tells Wallace she loves him.
After she throws him a fucking fish to eat.
Are you serious? If that’s love: fuck you.
It is this relatively feel-goodish ending that blows it for me. The point could have been made with the same flashback, earlier in the film, and a final shot of Wallace’s tears as he looks at Ally just after he kills Howard with his tusks, realizing that he has finally lost his humanity, as she said he was, and that she knows it, too. He has become the monster in flesh that he was becoming in spirit. He is, finally no longer the man she loved before his success.
End on a shotgun blast from LaPointe.
Opportunity missed, in my opinion. Wonder if Smith considered it.
But, overall, Tusk is an incredibly brave piece of film-making by Smith. His dialogue is good, and his cast is effective, though mostly carried by Parks’ mad portrayal of Howard Howe. It is dark, and gritty, and frightening, and sarcastic, and very Smith in spirit.
In the end, I recommend you see Tusk if you enjoy Smith’s work or a good horror-flick.
I just wish he’d dug deeper and given us more to mull, more to enjoy, more Parks to wash over us with that voice and stories.