Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Kevin Smith's TUSK

Tusk is an example of a film where you come across it and go: MAN, WHERE DID THAT COME FROM?!  And of course it's all about context.  If Tusk, a horror comedy about a smarmy, wise-ass podcaster who becomes embroiled in an old man's wish to make a human into a walrus, was made by any other filmmaker - like, say, someone who never made a film before - it would start a career.  Or maybe end it before it begins, I don't know.  But because it's Kevin Smith, there's a weird standard there, and as with "auteurs" (or just independents like Smith, who can work in a studio system but feel better working their own little corners of the American film world), you look at the last movie they made.

RED STATE was a departure for Smith as a horror/thriller, not really funny at all (maybe a couple of chuckles, but nothing much intentional), but, with the exception (and a good one) of Michael Parks' barn-storming performance as a fiery, Evangelical preacher, it didn't really bust out the gate with anything as groundbreaking as it thought it was doing.  In other words, Smith is trying, but it should be crazier, and go for the jugular with a group like fundamentalist Christians.  What was it saying, at the end of it, outside of being a generic thriller?

TUSK is not like that.  Tusk is a Gonzo movie experience, a Midnight movie, a Grindhouse movie - and it's telling that a certain third-act role was originally written for Tarantino to play (how he would've done it, fuck if I know) - and it's safe to say that Smith never has made a film like this, and, possibly, may never again.  It's messy, it's sometimes all over the place, there's even the chance some of it doesn't work in terms of mixing comedy, drama, horror, thrills, and just... WHAT IS THAT SUIT?!

Justin Long plays the character of the podcaster, a man named Wallace (GET IT?) with a comically big mustache who goes to interview a kid that slices his leg off with a sword (not a great special effect but I can let it go) up in Canada.  The kid is, as it turns out, dead, so now Wallace doesn't have an interview subject for his show "Not See Party" (Get it again, there is some fun with this though) - that is until a letter on a bathroom door in a bar talking about "Stories" and "Adventure" pops out at Wallace.  He goes to see this old man, Howard Howell (Parks), who has many stories like about Hemingway and D-Day and being on a ship lost at sea and a walrus... oh, and he spikes Wallace's tea and cuts off his leg and holds him captive to turn him into a walrus, ANYWAY...

Why Tusk is successful at what it sets out to do - for me - is how much Smith embraces the brazen insanity of this situation.  If you understand it's not trying to be high art (most of the time) and is a surreal comic nightmare, the pleasures are limitless.  But a script is just a script, and as terrific as so much of the dialog is here - and Smith, as his own independent editor, lets scenes go on for long lengths, once or twice just a tinge too long but, mostly, it feels rather incredible hearing dialog flow without abandon in a movie nowadays - he needs good actors to pull it off.

Parks is King here.  Parks isn't an actor that was under the radar for a long time, and even Tarantino, who brought him to more notice than before, used him sparingly in his films.  Smith knows he's got both old-school charm, chilling menace, and a bizarre almost.... kindness about him.  All of this goes into Howell, how he uses his diction - to those who might think Smith's characters often talk a-like in some of his comedies should look here, this is a distinct, awesome character - how he lets loose at certain beats, how he makes this man such a total psychopath that you can't take your eyes off him.

Long, too, is excellent for what he's asked to do... which, at times, horrifyingly yet sometimes hilariously, is being stitched together as a fucking walrus (this via special fx from KNB, which, I think, is intentionally meant to look like a weird pastiche).  I felt bad for the character, despite (or maybe because) of the smart-alecky places he comes from.  Where things get a little slippery, and, again, the tonal issue, is with Wallace's girlfriend Alley, who loves this guy but, well, is having an affair.  This is one of those turns that comes not quite out of nowhere, but something that would be fitting in another story.  Perhaps if this was addressed again, just in passing, in the final act the angle could work.  But it doesn't - not for lack of trying on Genesis Rodriguez's part, far from it, she's incredible in a particular monologue Smith has her do.  It just belongs in a different movie.

And some might think, as well, the big third-act reveal of ::DRUM ROLL PLEASE IN CASE YOU HAVEN'T ALREADY GONE TO IMDB:: Johnny Depp.  For the first minute of him being on-screen (and Smith holds a close-up shot of him for what seems like a while in an unwieldy speech about his hunt for the serial killer), it's unnerving.  We KNOW it's him, and it's almost distracting that he comes up in what is a bug-fuck crazy movie.  But... hey, why NOT Depp?  If anything, this is the most challenging part he's had in a while, and he sinks his teeth into it.  About halfway through his first scene, I got into it, and found his character a true classic oddball, funny and deranged and yet kind of the secret hero of the last act of the movie. 

The Walrus scenes, once Long is "transformed", but also his "getting ready to be changed" scenes, are outrageous spectacles of weirdness.  It probably all IS a cartoon, or, closer to the truth, Smith's take-off like a comic-book writer he sometimes is at doing a Vertigo comic, one of those ultra-pulpy-WTF stories that probably shouldn't work in reality.  Should this movie even "work" in the ways it's trying?  Sometimes it's all about taste, I suppose.  95% of the time, I felt like I was in the hands of a filmmaker really going for something different, as opposed to just leaning a little more forward ala Red State.

In a way, it's not even about going out of a 'comfort zone', but exploring another cinematic terrain.  This is Cronenberg body-horror made by a dude who loves hockey and Michael Parks and fucking with his audience.  I don't think the negative reviews are unwarranted.  Tusk is bound to piss people off looking for something straight down the line as horror or comedy.  It's so many things, but what I responded to the most was it's audacity, it's zeal to go into uncomfortable terrain as far as what to show and (as with the climax scored to Fleetwood Mac's song of the title name) hear.

I can pick apart the movie, for sure, and have.  In a way, that's what I love about it.  It's unhinged, absurd, hysterical Canadian madness of a high order; ironically Alejandro Jodorowsky made a film called Tusk (largely forgotten), and it's likely not as strange as this.