Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Kevin Smith is one of the most divisive filmmakers in the business, a writer-director that stands by his work and doesn’t let others get in the way. I’m a fan of some of his films but not all: I really enjoy Dogma and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, I cannot stand Cop Out or Red State, and his other efforts don’t particularly connect with me. His films are the strongest when he deals with familiar themes and genres and tackles them with ferocity and scorn. Tusk, his new horror feature, is brilliantly demented and biting, showing a reinvigoration that the filmmaker hasn’t seen in years. He takes a well-worn atmosphere and re-creates a truly unsettling premise, uniquely combining elements from horror classics like Misery and repulsive recent efforts like The Human Centipede. The film descends into madness after its set-up and becomes a perverted vision of humanism, one that will remain unforgettable.
The story follows Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), an immature podcaster that resorts to mean jokes for cheap laughs and cheats on his girlfriend. He works with his long-time friend, Teddy (Haley Joel Osment), on their show called the Not-See Party, with the title screaming a tasteful affair. They seek out an interview with a YouTube sensation that embarrassed himself, so Wallace travels to Canada in search of this man for a prized interview to mock him to death. Unfortunately for them, the kid is unavailable to interview, leaving Wallace lost and unfulfilled. Only then does he discover an ad in the bathroom that leads him to the home of Howard Howe (Michael Parks). Howard is an old, feeble man that accommodates Wallace and tells him memories from his past. He has extravagant stories that detail the brutality of man, his incredibly dark and tragic backstory, and his affinity for God’s greatest creation: the walrus.
Things end up turning sour when Wallace is drugged and forcibly put into one of Howard’s experiments. He’s not as feeble and simple as he seemed. Teddy and Wallace’s girlfriend, Ally (Genesis Rodriguez), search for him and uncover darker secrets about Howard while Wallace realizes the endgame of his transformation. Smith’s vision for the film is one of his most confident. The camera moves lyrically and waxes across a scene to build maximum tension; long takes appear often and heighten the unsettling nature of many of the settings. The camera often lingers on Howard’s face as he tells lavishly detailed stories about his war-torn past and why he loves walruses and hates men as much as he does. There’s a certain way that Smith approaches these stories that speaks truth about storytelling: the magnetic power it can have over the listener and the way that it can contort a person’s perception of reality. Howard is undeniably crazy and Parks sells the performance with his usually insane charisma.
The writing, like many of Smith’s films, uses the first half to set up the far-fetched premise by grounding the story in reality and characters. The second half becomes unchained and chaotic in every facet, yet the story remains shockingly sound. The introduction of Guy Lapointe (played by an actor named “Guy Lapointe,” an unrecognizable superstar in cameo form) has the story drift into Tarantino-esque eccentricity and violence, but the narrative remains compelling. The performances all-around are committed, particularly from Long as he makes a horrible person into an oddly sympathetic embodiment of humanity. The ending packs a punch due to his portrayal of Wallace. Smith hates podcasters and likes the idea of Canadians, and his bite cuts through scenes to ensure the audience understands that. Tusk is one of the more singular visions I have seen in 2014, a film that satisfies horror fans while managing to deliver a solemn, effective conclusion.
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)