I have long been an admirer of Kevin Smith’s filmmaking ethic; although not always a fan of some of his films. He has taken the bull by the horns – in this case, the walrus by the tusks – and ignored the naysayers, to do what he wants to do – make movies. Inexpensive and cost effective by filmmaking standards, Smith’s films are all stories that he wants to tell and told the way he wants to tell them. As a result, he and his work have developed a core following that guarantees investment money made back opening weekend. But because of his ethic, his style, his stories, his passion, and his unwavering stance when it comes to making his vision without interference by studios, investors and distributors, several years ago after “Red State”, he announced he was done with filmmaking and turned to podcasting. Thankfully for all of us, creativity (and his wife) got the better of him and his filmmaking pilot light was relit with a very strange idea that arose from a hoax ad on the internet. That fire burns brighter than ever with TUSK. A thought-provoking, subtextual philosophical commentary on humanity and man, with an emotional and visual depth that is undisputedly the best work of Smith’s career, TUSK is both brilliantly disturbing and disturbingly brilliant.
Wallace is the kind of person you love to hate. An arrogant ass whose obnoxious attitude is fueled by his own pent up misery in life, Wallace is one-half of the “Not See Party” podcast team; the other being Teddy Craft who is also Wallace’s best, and only, friend. Teddy is just what his name implies – a cuddly kind of guy with a genuine smile, hearty laugh and a twinkle of mischief; and he is loyal to a fault. Disinterested and self-absorbed, Wallace’s relationship with girlfriend Ally is tenuous at best, particularly when his “jokes” are bulls-eyed at her.
On a roll with the podcast, the “Not See Party” has become an internet sensation with a video the “Kill Bill Kid”. A young Canadian with an obsession for swords and Tarantino, while recording his own imitation of Uma Thurman, “Kill Bill Kid” cuts off his own leg with a misplaced sword edge. The result is an hilarious viral sensation. Wanting to continue to boost his show’s ratings, Wallace makes plans to fly to Canada and meet with Kill Bill Kid in person. Teddy, afraid to fly, will stay at home.
On arriving in Canada, Wallace finds that “Kill Bill Kid” has died thanks to another epic injury. Outraged at the boy’s audacity to die before their interview, Wallace determines to find something else to make the trip worthwhile. While in the bathroom of a local bar (yes, above the urinal – this is a Kevin Smith film after all!), Wallace sees a handbill advertisement “offering free lodging in the home of an elderly man with seafaring stories to tell”. Seeing the potential of the experience, Wallace immediately calls the man and heads out for an interview.
Pippy Hill is nothing if not a remote gothic estate. Steeped in a richness of history and wealth, mystery and intrigue, and smelling of fear, Wallace is even more intrigued when he meets the wheelchair-bound Howard Howe. A quirky but distinguished old gentlemen, Howe’s manners are impeccable, his stories mesmerizing, his peppering of literary monologues telling of education and a romanticized life, particularly when he gets to the story of Mr. Tusk. When lost at sea in 1959, Howe was saved by a walrus he named Mr. Tusk. Stranded on a rock with Mr. Tusk for what sounds like a number of years, the two became best friends and inseparable until Howe was rescued. A sweet story.
Sipping some special tea from a china teacup (with pinky extended, mind you) and as spellbound as a child being read his favorite bedtime story for the umpteenth time, it doesn’t take long for Wallace to drift off to sleep or, pass out, as the case may be. On awakening, he finds he is no longer in the warm, welcoming drawing room, but in a cold Deco-tiled atrium, himself now in a wheelchair with a blanket covering his lap. On joining him, Howe explains that a spider bit his ankle and a doctor had to be summoned. As Wallace lifts the blanket to check out his injury, he is horrified and petrified. His leg is gone. While he shrieks blood curdling screams to rival the Banshees, Howe calmly advises that dinner will be served promptly at 6-o’clock.
Realizing Howe is a madman, Wallace knows he needs help, but from who. The only friends he has or people he can call are Ally and Teddy. With neither answering his frantic phone calls, Wallace can only pray they will get his messages and rescue him. But the clock is ticking as Wallace learns of Howe’s ultimate vision – to physically turn Wallace into Mr. Tusk.
The brilliance of TUSK rises and falls on the performance of Michael Parks. Needing someone who can walk that rapier line between sanity and insanity, mannered gentility and gutteral freak, and deliver lengthy literary monologues ripe with history, quotations and reference, given that Peter O’Toole is no longer with us, Michael Parks is the heir apparent. Giving full credit to Parks, Smith excitedly notes, “Michael, you know, breathed absolute life into it and its Michael’s performance first to last.” Parks is spellbinding. As the backstory unfolds (which I will not divulge), you find yourself more rapt in Howe and in the story, as the intrigue and mystery is fueled by a schizophrenic and sociopathic performance that is delicious. Shakespearean to the core, Parks digs in and keeps on going.
According to Smith, TUSK lives because of Michael Parks. Feeling bad that he didn’t “get [Parks] attention on Red State because [Smith] was too busy getting attention for myself just creating a ****ing story around it to sell the movie without selling marketing and stuff. . .I always felt like he got kind of cheated, man, like he deserved more attention. . . [I]f I can shine the light on Parks that would be a reason to go back and do it and that would make me thrilled to do it.”
When it comes to Wallace, Justin Long may be a surprise casting – until you see his performance. He brings an ultimate humanity, regret and remorse to the callous arrogance of the insensitive smart-ass that is Wallace. Stretching himself as an actor, not only is this is the first time we see Long not be “Mr. Nice” or “Mr. Likeable”, but for much of his role he had to perform without the benefit of movement or voice, forced to rely on his eyes and vocalized timbres of feral screams and yelps; be it while paralyzed in a wheelchair drooling and drugged out or in various stages of Odobenus rosmarus transformation. Challenging for any actor, Long more than proves his mettle.
As with Parks, Smith is humble and effusive when he speaks of Long and TUSK. “Justin helped me shape what Wallace became.” Calling Long “my secret weapon”, key to Smith’s casting choice was that “[Y]ou don’t just get a performer with Justin, you get a writer. . .You get somebody who writes on their feet, who does your movie and then ****ing does six other movies that blend into your movie because he’s so ****ing quick and charming. . .Justin’s gonna do what Justin does best. And then on top of that he’s gonna do what he’s never done before which is take the only ****ing arrow out of his quiver that he knows he can hit the bulls eye with every time – speaking.”
While it feels as if Haley Joel Osment has been out of the picture for awhile, he has been anything but, filling his years with college, voice work and smaller internet series. But with TUSK, he’s back in full force as Teddy Craft. Fun and fun-loving, Osment gets to inject a bit of kick-ass into Teddy and display a bit of that “sixth sense” earnestness we remember so well. Of course, the real kick-ass in TUSK is Genesis Rodriguez. As Ally, she gets to shoot guns and kick in doors. But she’s also exhibiting growth as an actress with levels and style of emotion, something that is brought to the forefront in a bedroom scene that leads to a big story reveal. The tears, the eyes, you think she’s prepping her audition for a soap opera – which plays into Smith’s kind of comedy camp.
Since the cat’s out of the bag, it won’t hurt to mention credited Guy Lapointe aka Johnny Depp. Yes, using the character name as a credit alias, Depp pops up as former Canadian Detective Lapointe. Rather obvious that Depp is trying for a meld of Peter Falk “Columbo” and Rock Hudson “Mac McMillan”. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work. The character falls flat, feeling uninspired, dull. It doesn’t take long before you find yourself doing the “get to the point already” mantra in your seat. Although the character is necessary to the story, the manner in which the character is designed and executed, detracts from the film as a whole.
Having met Kevin Smith in the past, heard him passionately deliver presentations and keynotes at an annual National Association of Broadcasters convention, and admired his passion and efficacy in making films, I always felt he was shortchanging himself, that he could say more, dig deeper, while retaining his core essence. With TUSK, he has.
The whole idea of making a man into a walrus set against the mythology of a long lost serial killer is fantastic, wonderful and actually, quite cool. Although told as a broad comedy-horror blend, it’s the broadest comedy (that of Guy Lapointe) that detracts from the disturbingly brilliant concept and macabre beauty of the film as a whole. The opening “Not See Party” podcasts work extremely well to kickstart the underlying philosophies and psychological horror that unfolds. Wallace’s on-air personality and cruelty is a subtext that permeates Howe’s pontificating mantras about men versus animals and the “humanity” of it all. Strong ideologies are infused into dialogue with discussions and statement such as the ability to cry and tears are the difference between men and animals; you have to wonder which is then better – man or an animal? The messaging and commentary is extremely profound and thought-provoking.
Visually, TUSK goes far beyond anything that we have seen from Smith in the past. Rich, textured. Electing to shoot widescreen at 2:33, James Laxton’s cinematography is well done and well designed – especially with Pippy Hill and the prison rock island within the mansion. The color, golden hued umbers within the “drawing room” – reddish mahogany dark wood walls, oriental rug in a burgundy – and the use of color within the production design adds eye-catching texture and depth to the cinematic experience. Intending the film to be more “punk rock, hand held”, it was Laxton who convinced Smith to go for the more cinematic experience. “James was like, ‘Push it out there. We went to rails on the whole thing.” Thanks to an amazing dolly grip, steady-can was completed eliminated. “Once you get the wide frame, all of a sudden it’s like we’re doing this constantly. We’re constantly floating back and forth. And the movie looks classy.” Shot on location at Kramer Hill in North Carolina, Smith lucked out with an abandoned country club to serve as Howe’s mansion and the Pippy Hill estate and called upon production designer John Kretschmer to modify the luxury of the clubhouse as well as create the walrus enclave. The result is beauteous.
Robert Kurtzman’s walrus effects/prosthetics is very Frankenstonian, adding a nice spine-chilling creepiness. Just check out those front flippers. However, as I have done in the past, I again have to question when prosthetics that involve sutures and incisions will move beyond the early Frankenstein age and actually reflect healed adhesions with the passage of time as opposed to the over-used still bloody, wide, ugly and unhealed visuals we are accustomed to. The effect can be just as ugly and horrifying.
Christopher Drake’s scoring serves as connective tissue, exquisitely blending the softness of known compositions by Debussey and Stephen Foster with the fun a traditional tune like “Blow the Man Down” and the ever-present pulse of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk”.
The combined effort of all the artisans and craftsmen has produced a film with highly polished production values, employing creativity that pushes the tonal bandwidth to levels of enthralling uncomfortability and thought-provoking subject matter while still retaining the essence of Kevin Smith and a Kevin Smith film. “This thing is a product of its time and era. It’s born of social media and the Internet. It is of the era of podcasts. It was born with podcast, it’s about podcast or Twitter or GreenLid.”
Whether or not Smith intended, with TUSK, he has written and created something that is profound, filled with meaning and thought-provoking commentary and subtext, buttressed with indelible performances and imagery, that will stand the test of time and generations of audiences to come.
Written and Directed by Kevin Smith
Cast: Justin Long, Michael Parks, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez, Guy Lapointe
TUSK transforms the cinematic landscape on September 19th!