Michael Parks as Howard Howe
Justin Long as Wallace Bryton
Johnny Depp as Guy Lapointe
Wallace and his partner Teddy run a popular podcast where Wallace tells Teddy about his interviews of people who the web has made famous. For his current project, Wallace heads up to Manitoba to interview a man who accidentally chopped off his own leg and caught it on film – with the viral video attracting millions of hits. Yet, after the man’s unexpected suicide, Wallace is left without a story until he responds to a peculiar advertisement in a men’s room that leads him to the residence of Howard Howe – an old man with interesting stories to tell. But too late, Wallace discovers that Howard is insane and obsessed with transforming a man into a walrus.
Tusk is not a scary movie… but a very disturbing one. Kevin Smith with his muse – Michael Parks – have put together another brilliantly-crafted drama driven by rich characters and their ambitions in the mode of their previous collaboration – Red State (2010). The characters are nuanced and the flaws of each of them are on display, but unlike virtually all of those in Red State, each also inspires a degree of sympathy if not allegiance. Even Howard Howe – who is not just insane, but sadistic – has a pitiable backstory that audiences are treated to drip by drip – the cornerstone of decent storytelling. Plus, Smith – more seamlessly than in any of his previous movies – during otherwise ghastly sequences – blends humorous elements into each character and their dialogue with each other. But the humor is far from the obvious puns a la Scream (1996), but believable and appropriate for the circumstances. It is so ingeniously intertwined with the unsettling drama that audiences are left a little uneasy with themselves – a self-questioning – as to whether or not laughter is appropriate.
Additionally there are plenty of more conventional puns subtly strewn throughout the feature that invite the audience to take a step back and see the story unfolding before them as just a story – even as the drama sucks the audience right back in to suspension of disbelief. The very plot itself is absurd and laughable on paper, but executed with such respect for insanity as to suggest an intimacy that Smith himself may share. Viewers will find themselves seriously indulging in the most ridiculous aspects of the story and laughing – or wanting to laugh (depending on how self-conscious) at some of the sickest and most twisted parts of the film.
And this is precisely the design as you – the viewer – play an active role in the theme. The discomfort from laughing at something otherwise depraved, or staring at it in a gawking sense of wonder – hypnotized by the grotesquery inherent in the character interaction and in-your-face mutilations – is the point. Even Wallace – the principle character – makes his living by sharing his laughs and guffaws at those whose misfortunes happen to be filmed – all for the amusement of his internet subscribers. And the ending of the film – although rushed – culminates in us – as the voyeurs of grotesquery – looking at the voyeurs of grotesquery. On paper it seems humorous and somewhat hokie, but … few who watch it will think so. And this ending of us looking at those looking at a freak – the seriousness of it – drives home the truly disturbing theme of us and what’s within us, in the same manner as Freaks (1932) and to a lesser extent Peeping Tom (1960). But the message in the former is more basic and in the latter – more heavy-handed. Smith’s is subtle and intentionally messy – like real-to-life characters who bump into each other.
Needless to say, the execution is nearly flawless – highlighted by convincing performances of the few actors involved. Some are purposefully meant to have somewhat humorous outlooks on terrible acts, but all are believable. Smith’s choice of filming critical scenes in bathrooms will bring a grin from those familiar with his work. His exaggerated props juxtaposes characters speaking to others but looking directly at the camera – further inviting our participation.
The storyline is evenly paced with appropriate flashbacks – some retelling the same events from different perspectives that alter the dialogue to amusing effect. But unfortunately, the pacing falls apart towards the end and the acts of some fall out of their character – so that events seem rushed and press against the border of believability. The epilogue is ridiculous, but only to drive home the disturbing nature of our voyeurism. Yet everything is more or less wrapped up with a passable conclusion – appropriate from a character perspective if not the story’s… At least enough so that the final scenes do not detract from an otherwise great movie.
Bottom Line: Tusk is a highly disturbing drama. Parts that one would expect to be funny are deadly serious. And parts that one would expect to be deadly serious are funny… And it all works – brilliantly so.