Sunday, 19 October 2014

Movie Review: Tusk (2014)

When I first got interested in reviewing movies back in 2010, I decided to cut my teeth on a little film called 'The Human Centipede'. I reviewed it no less than three times that year: Once as a blog, once as an assignment for Drama class in high school (yes, seriously), then again as an 'improved' blog on the same site as the original. Now, while I freely admit that giving that much effort to a movie as meme-y as 'Centipede' was a mistake, I also admit that I'm glad that I chose it to start with and after having seen today's movie, Kevin Smith's 'Tusk', I feel even better about that decision.

Why do I say this? Because, in terms of production history, both films started in the exact same place: A joke. With 'Centipede', it was a one-off joke that creator Tom Six made about how child molesters should be punished by having their mouths to the anus of an overweight truck driver. Good God, how I wish we got THAT movie instead of Dr. Heiter's One-Way Train To No Fucks Given, but I digress. With 'Tusk', it started on Kevin Smith's podcast SModcast (This episode specifically, which I definitely suggest you check out). In it, he and co-host Scott Mosier discussed a fake Gumtree ad about a man who was offering free lodgings… so long as said lodger would dress as a walrus. Both ideas mushroomed out of their respective jokes, but went in quite different directions. Whereas Six treated his film as a joke (At least, I hope he did) and it shows, Smith shows some serious conviction for what is, in essence, one of the most insane premises for any movie outside of the stables of Lloyd Kaufman.

The plot is as such: Wallace (played by Justin Long) finds a flyer for an adventurer named Howard (played by Michael Parks) who wants to share his life's stories and he wants to interview him for his podcast. Howard, however, has an ulterior motive: He wants to turn his guest into a walrus. Like I said, nuttier than an acorn tree. If this was a simple matter of a silly premise being played straight for comedic value, like in Airplane! and the like, it'd be one thing. However, what we have here is a beast of another colour: A horror comedy with elements of drama, meaning that it wants to admit to how ridiculous it is while also doing it seriously. In theory, this is an extremely dangerous idea. What do we end up getting, though?

The idea came out of a podcast and it sounds like it. The writing for Wallace in his opening scenes is the kind of humour you would get from darker comedians like Louis CK and George Carlin (not as good but similar, don't get it confused), or from podcast hosts who don't have governing bodies like the freakin' FCC to hold their tongues. You know, the kind where you're watching a guy who is annoyed that the kid he flew out to Canada to talk to killed himself, meaning that he wasted his time and money, and you can somehow relate to him in some twisted fashion. Yeah, admitting to such a thought is not good by any means, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t think it on some level when such a thing happens. Speaking of the kid he went up to see, the 'Kill Bill Kid' on his own shows a certain level of awareness about its own environment I really wish 'in-crowd' movies had more often.

Back to Wallace, as someone who frequents a community run by such a person, I found him to be… bizarrely relatable. Don't get me wrong, he's still yet another horror film 'protagonist' who runs under the impression that since horrible shit is going to happen to him, we should hate him so we don't care as much. However, it's severely lessened as opposed to other films like, say, any horror film released in the last decade or so. He's an asshole, but at least he's not cartoonishly so; just the right amount that one sees in real life, but not to the point where he reminds you of why you are watching a movie instead of talking to people like him. Justin Long, an actor whom I never really had a strong impression of one way or another prior to this, pulls an Alex DeLarge here and seriously makes you feel sorry for the shit that happens to him despite how much of a dick he is, a feat that is a lot trickier to pull off than most actors and filmmakers seem to realize.

The writing for Howard is similar to that of Gustav H. from the excellent 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' earlier this year, in that he switches frequently from high literacy to potty humour without missing a beat; one minute, he's quoting 'The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner', the next, he's talking about his former wife's gas problems. He also manages to juggle them both along with the hefty dramatic layers to his character, not to mention the sheer grenades-dangling-from-pubes-grade insanity of his motives, resulting in a very captivating performance. The rest of the cast does well with their roles, including a performance by Haley Joel "Where Da Fuck You Been?" Osment, although most of the characters do feel a bit flat in comparison to our two mains. The major exception to this is the much-hyped Johnny Depp as Guy Lapointe, the sort of white hunter of Howard. This has to be one of the most bizarre roles I've seen in my short time as a film buff. I can't even say if it's good or not because it manages to cross into Tommy Wiseauvian territory of surreal, where it's engaging but you're not entirely sure if it should be. He is without a doubt the funniest thing about this movie, delivering some of the best lines with laser-guided precision (The explanation for Howard's nickname had the whole audience cackling).

Well, that's the comedy, what about the horror? Bear in mind, I have yet to see 'Red State' (I haven't really seen any Kevin Smith films past Clerks II), but after seeing how he handles the tension in this film, I'm definitely going to. This gave me some serious literal chills down my spine: From how the actors were directed to the camera work to the effects work, this might be one of the most unnerving films this year, and not just based on pure shock value like how some claim 'Centipede' is creepy. Here, it feels a lot more like the chills are earned. The scene where Howard is stitching Wallace up is the kind of scene that should be studied in terms of pace, delivery and efficacy.

The direction at large does a good job at mind-fragging the audience, in that it succeeds at delivering emotion, comedy and horror all at the same time in some scenes. The perfect example of this is the unveiling of the 'walrus', where I proceeded to feel proper terror at both the idea and the realization of this reverse Dr. Moreau experiment made flesh, then giddiness at just how stupid this premise ultimately is, then sadness at seeing a human being put through that kind of procedure, all without completely spinning out of control. Say what you want about the film as a whole, that's a feat.

All in all, this is a difficult film to sum up: On one hand, I absolutely love this movie, flaws and all. I always give points to films that let me experience as much as possible in a single sitting, and this movie certainly accomplished that; on the other hand, this is a very hard film to recommend to people, as it is most certainly not for everyone. The best I can offer in that regard is if you are the kind of person who would hear about a film about three people stitched together ass-to-mouth, or a film about a man who gets turned into a walrus, and your curiosity would get the better of you and you'd want to check it out, then this is your kind of movie. On my list, it is currently the 7th best film of the year, just outperforming 'These Final Hours' but falling short of 'Only Lovers Left Alive'.

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