C.H. Newell talks to director-writer Al White about his stunning debut feature, STARFISH.
Tusk. 2014. Directed & Written by Kevin Smith.
Starring Michael Parks, Justin Long, Genesis Rodriguez, Haley Joel Osment, and Johnny Depp. Sony Pictures Releasing Canada.
Rated 14A. 102 minutes.
First of all, a lot of people seem to misunderstand Tusk as a film overall. It’s meant, above all else, as a comedy and a drama. Yes, there is horror, and it is a horror film, but the comedy and drama trump everything. Just a little over halfway through the movie, things get divisive because a lot of people think it gets ridiculous, or silly, or whatever.
Me – well, I think differently.
Second, I just love the premise of this movie. Kevin Smith is not particularly one of my favourites, though, I really love Clerks (the first one – I don’t dig the second so much), Mallrats, Dogma, and Red State a lot. His move into a bit of horror while still holding onto the comedy roots he works so well with really is spectacular. Red State was a lot of fun, and I’ve re-watched it a bunch of times since the first; for me, it holds up time after time.
The story of Tusk follows Wallace Bryton (Long), a rising podcast star, who interviews weird and wild people everywhere; he travels to different locations, interviews different characters, and then retells his experiences for Teddy Craft (Osment) who never travels. There emerges a side story involving Wallace’s girlfriend Ally; the two share a bit of a rocky relationship, as we see both Wallace’s infidelity, as well as Ally’s eventual, secret at first, indiscretions, too. Wallace goes up to Canada to interview the Kill Bill Kid – a young man who chopped off his own leg with a sword accidentally – but once he arrives in Winnipeg, he discovers the kid has taken his own life, and the story is quite literally now dead.
Unfairly pissed, Wallace heads to a bar before moving on home. In the bathroom he discovers a wanted ad: an old man, once an adventurer at sea, has a room for rent, and stories to tell. Out in the woods of Manitoba, Wallace finds Howard Howe in a beautiful, sprawling estate type home. Howe seems just a little eccentric at first telling stories of being at sea, meeting Ernest Hemingway (even claiming one of old Ernie’s most famous quotes about drinking was first quoted to him personally), however, soon enough it’s really damn clear the old man doesn’t just want company. He misses an old friend, and Howe is determined to bring him back by any means necessary.
Once Wallace goes missing, Ally and Teddy wake up to a frantic voicemail he left them both; he claims Howe has kidnapped him, and wants to turn him into a walrus. Worried, they seek out the police, who are of course sceptical (I spell it that way ’cause I’m Canadian, eh). They then meet a man named Guy Lapointe (played hilariously by Johnny Depp). He has been hunting a serial killer across Canada, and it turns out this is most likely Howe. They join together hoping to track down and save Wallace.
A lot of people have trouble with the way Tusk shifts gears between horror to drama to comedy, and back, and forth. I don’t necessarily see the problem. If either of these genres were being inappropriately served up, then I would understand, but to my mind it’s all carried out pretty well. The horror works. Some may say the “transformation” is silly. I understand. I mean, the comedy of Long’s “transformation” is not lost on Smith – he knows it looks a bit funny. Aside from the initial laugh it might get, the “transformation” (I say that because I don’t want to outright describe anything and give it away) is pretty fucking disturbing. Especially when you couple Long’s appearance with the shrieking and moaning he does after being transformed. After awhile it really gets grating on the nerves. Not in an annoying sense. It grates on them hard and makes me uncomfortable. Watching Parks’ character rant at Long, transformed into a hideous thing, feeding him, making him eat; it’s awful. But awful in the best sort of way.
The bits of drama worked into the storyline served things well. Once you get to the end and look back at the drama Smith infused into the screenplay, they really add to one another. The ending (I won’t give it away) sort of makes you look at how both Ally and Teddy feel about Wallace, deep down, regardless of everything which came before. Some might see the ending as foolish, or whatever – I don’t see it that way. There’s a real sentimental angle at work that serves the dramatic storyline well. It isn’t just an attempt for a goofy/happy ending to a horror-comedy. It’s how Smith closes out the emotional angle he’d been playing at with the Wallace/Ally/Teddy story. I thought it was probably the best way for Tusk to end. In a way, it’s sentimental, yet still a bit horrifying.
The comedy really works. I’m Canadian, and I thought a lot of the Canada jokes were hilarious. The ‘aboot’ thing is a bit overworked in film/television generally, but other than that it’s really funny. I thought the ‘double double’ joke was pretty funny because I’ve heard lots of people actually say things like that. Some might misinterpret the joke as Smith not understanding what a ‘double double’ actually is, but it’s the opposite – he knows, and he’s making fun of Tim Hortons lovers. At least that’s how I see it.
Also, near the opening Long’s character goes through the airport, and one of the Canadian guys working there is just so ridiculously funny it makes me tear up – plus, his beard is gnarly as all hell.
The performances in Tusk are what really make things chug along wonderfully. Of course people will talk about Parks because he did a great job, as he did in the previous outing with Smith on Red State. And he was fascinating. Really creepy, especially in the early dinner table scenes opposite Long. Some very ominous stuff.
Even Just Long, who I’m admittedly not huge on really, does a good job with the material. He is a perfect fit for Wallace, and was pretty funny at times, especially in his banter with Parks, as well as with the two young girls at the Canadian convenience store (played by the daughter duo of Depp and Smith’s girls). There are a few really creepy points where Long does a fantastic job after his “transformation”; his vocalizations are really god damn scary at times, to me, and I watch a lot of horror. He could have simply wailed, but you could really feel some of Wallace’s fear by the way Long screamed and pleaded for help.
Mainly, though, I really want to talk about Mr. Depp. A lot of people like to say he isn’t actually a great actor, he only takes a role depending on the hat he gets to wear, he sold out, blah, blah, blah. I think that is a load of bullshit. Depp is not only an extremely talented actor, he absolutely blows the screen to bits in Tusk. First off, his portrayal of a French Canadian Quebec accent (for those who don’t know, yes, there are other French people in Canada aside from the people of Quebec..) is so awesome. Even just his speech patterns, let alone the accent, are perfect. Loved it. A lot of times we see Depp in roles where he’s got a sexy sort of edge to him; even his dirty, fiendish Jack Sparrow was meant to have a kind of sex appeal to him. Here, Lapointe is just a really awesome dirtbag. He’s lovable, but good lord is he strange and sort of gross.
One of my favourite parts of the whole movie is when Lapointe mashes down a slider, nearly flat against a table, reminiscing on the only downfall of the great people of Quebec, and then eats it up (special note: wait until after the credits before you leave the theatre or turn off the film – there is a fun little post-credit scene with Lapointe recalling his love of the slider). Plus, there are plenty of other little bits where Depp absolutely sucks the marrow out of every bit of the Lapointe character. Anyone who says he “ruined the movie” or some such nonsense is a hater. Depp is hilarious here. For a second, I almost didn’t recognize him. Once he speaks, of course you’ll know. Before that, though, the prosthetics and the facial hair and the accent almost conceal him. I loved every second of his performance.
I really have to give Tusk a 4 out of 5 stars. It isn’t a perfect film. There are points where things sort of drag a little. I don’t know if the switch between genres had anything to do with pacing – I really liked the genre mashup here – but it’s possible that maybe a little less of a stark contrast between the genres in Tusk might appease more fans. Regardless, this film really hits the right notes. As I said, Smith finds a way to loop all those dramatic elements back together into something tangible while still hanging onto all the comedy and horror of Tusk. Not to mention Smith shot the film gorgeously. His eye for shot composition has only gotten better with time, film after film.
People will say it’s too funny to be all out horror. I say bullshit. People say the “transformation” is too silly to take seriously – I say, you’re watching a movie about a man wanting to turn another man into a fucking walrus, stop acting like it’s an Ingmar Bergman film. Sit back, enjoy Tusk for what it is – a horror comedy with dramatic elements and a few really awesome, creepy, and fun performances to boot. I really can’t wait for this to finally get out on Blu ray because I will most certainly be picking it up. Smith continues to impress me with his horror efforts on this second outing after his initial dip into the genre with Red State. I like the way he approaches horror. Looking forward to some more.