Kevin Smith’s ‘Tusk’ Is Half A Brilliant Film
Hoax Turns Into Indie Film
Friday, September 19, 2014
Credit: A24 Films
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "Tusk."
“The Human Centipede: First Sequence” (2009)
"Human Centipede II: Full Sequence" (2011)
“Red State” (2011)
“American Mary” (2012)
Hello, I am looking for a lodger in my house. I have had a long and interesting life and have now chosen Brighton as a location for my retirement. Among the many things I have done in my life is to spend three years alone on St. Lawrence Island. These were perhaps the most intense and fascinating years of my life, and I was kept in companionship with a walrus whom I named Gregory. Never have I had such a fulfilling friendship with anyone, human or otherwise. … I now find myself in a large house over looking Queens Park and am keen to get a lodger. This is a position I am prepared to offer for free ... on the fulfillment of some conditions. I have, over the last few months, been constructing a realistic walrus costume, which should fit most people of average proportions, and allow for full and easy movement in character. To take on the position as my lodger you must be prepared to wear the walrus suit for approximately two hours each day. … Whilst in the walrus costume you must be a walrus — there must be no speaking in a human voice, and any communication must entail making utterances in the voice of a walrus — I believe there are recordings available on the web — to me, the voice is the most natural thing I have ever heard.
Smith and his co-host, Scott Mosier, couldn’t stop laughing and couldn’t stop embellishing the already extravagant ad with more details. Smith was downright inspired and said it suggested a “cuddlier version of ‘The Human Centipede,'” a film in which a mad scientist surgically attached three people ass-to-mouth. The ad — as one might suspect — turned out to be a hoax masterminded by Chris Parkinson, but hoax or not Smith was determined to make a film, and he was convinced it was a horror tale.
In the story Smith has spun from the ad, Justin Long plays Wallace Bryton, a podcaster who makes a living not taking anything seriously. The film opens with him doing a podcast with his buddy Teddy Craft (Haley Joel Osment). He is talking (or more accurately laughing) about a web video in which a kid cuts off his leg while playing with a sword. He plans to visit the kid in Canada. But when he arrives in Canada, he’s annoyed to discover the boy killed himself. Now he has to find another story. That’s when he sees the ad looking for a lodger. The man claims to have had a "long and interesting life" so maybe there’s a story there. But when Wallace arrives at the creepily isolated home of Howard Howe (Michael Parks who also starred in Smith’s “Red State”), he doesn’t get a story, he becomes one.
“Tusk” begins with Smith’s usual brand of humor (the best of this is a scene at Canadian customs) but slowly slips into a claustrophobic tale of obsession. “Tusk” is a hard film to review because I really don’t want to say much more, yet I’d love to discuss some of the specifics of the film. Smith reveals a side of his talent I never knew existed. “Red State” showed that he could be serious and even pull it off, but “Tusk” reveals even more. Smith’s films are always smartly written, but they are never impressively shot. However, the first half of “Tusk,” especially once we get to the house, looks great and even shows some visual flair.
The film meticulously builds to a twisted, jaw-dropping WTF moment, and up until then I was riveted. Then the film falls off a cliff. It’s as if Smith scared himself by venturing onto more serious ground, so he abruptly returns to the safety of low comedy. He ends up mocking the characters and story he worked so carefully to develop. The comedy works perfectly in the beginning. It sets up Wallace as kind of a jerk — it provides a bit of misdirection in terms of what it prepares us for — and it delivers some perverse comedy once the horror of the situation starts to set in.
But it all goes sour when an unbilled Johnny Depp arrives to torture the audience with a bad accent and worse makeup. Up until then, Michael Parks had been holding us rapt as the walrus-obsessed Howe. But Depp and Smith reject Parks’ careful craft and replace it with jaw-dropping stupidity. It’s like there are two completely different movies here. Depp is a buffoon, and yet Smith still seems to want the other characters to be real. That causes a serious disconnect. I’m not saying there’s not a place for humor once the story goes dark (“The Human Centipede” had plenty of that, as well as horror throughout its tale). But the humor Smith and Depp turn to just seems out of place, and it pulls you out of an intense story.
I don’t know what has happened to Depp. There was a time — think back to “Edward Scissorhands” and “Ed Wood” — when he was great. It all started to change after the first “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Ever since, he’s become a joke, and each role is a measure of what ridiculous lengths he can take with the character. Smith might have been too star-struck to suggest a different approach to the role, but as the director he must assume ultimate responsibility and Depp simply ruins the movie.
There is one scene in particular that infuriated me. It's between Depp and Parks and seems like a scene from “Dumb and Dumber Go to Canada.” It is so painful that I wanted to flee the theater. In fact, for me this was the true WTF moment of the film because it’s the point at which Smith completely sabotages what was potentially a great film. It’s also ironic because Parks had been so good up until that scene. He gave us a crazy man whose calm, civil demeanor made his actions all the more disturbing. But there’s a saying in sports that when you play someone better than you, it raises your game, but that if you play someone worse, it can lower yours. Sadly, Depp brings Parks down to his level rather than Parks getting Depp to raise his game.
But Parks and the first half of the film are so good that “Tusk” (rated R for some disturbing violence/gore, language and sexual content) is still worth seeing. Just leave when the man with the bad Inspector Clouseau accent arrives.
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