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Film

'Tusk' is Really Savage Like, Really Weird, and Really Good

Instead of playing with the anticipated and the preconceived, Kevin Smith takes a intriguing premise and circumvents our expectations.


Tusk

Director: Kevin Smith
Cast: Justin Long, Michael Parks, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez, Guy LaPointe
Rated: R
Studio: A24
Year: 2014
US release date: 2014-09-19

It was the moment every fan was waiting for. After turning their previous work into a multi-million unit selling classic, the announcement of new material was met with the typical pop culture pandemonium. There was even something called "a video" to support the song, a chance to see the band actually recording the tune with help from USC's marching band.

Yes, 35 years ago, Fleetwood Mac unleashed the title track to their album, Tusk, to a bemused and confused audience. Those expecting the crystal clear commercial appeal of the group's Rumors, were instead stuck by a strange, surreal bit of primal percussion matched by writer Lindsey Buckingham's menacing vocals. It was unlike anything the band had done before.

The same can be said for Kevin Smith's imaginative body horror romp of the same name. Coming after a much heralded return to filmmaking (and pot smoking) after originally considering swansong territory, this bizarro world comedy, inspired by one incredibly weird Internet ad (and podcast over same) marks a kind of kinky departure for the indie icon.

While still filling his character's mouths with reams of ridiculously interesting dialogue, the man behind Clerks, Chasing Amy, Jay and Silent Bob, and Red State, channels his own inner Cronenberg, complete with jabs at our friends in the Great White North, to twist the serial killer concept on its often point-less head.

A true takedown of Internet smarm and old school splatter, Smith tells the story of an irritating web sensation named Wallace Bryton (Justin Long). Along with partner and BFF Teddy Craft (Haley Joel Osment), he's made a name for himself with the Not-See Party podcast. The controversial name is explained away via Teddy's fear of travel, therefore not allowing him to witness Wallace's reports from the fractured fringes of society.

In essence, this duo tracks down the participants of famous viral videos and mocks them mercilessly for its hipster audience. When a Canadian boy accidentally cuts off his leg with a samurai sword, Wallace and Teddy see their next mark.

Sadly, that situation doesn't pan out. Stuck in Manitoba, Wallace discovers an ad on a men's room wall. Offering room and board for basic living assistance -- as well as a wealth of adventure stories -- someone named Howard Howe (Michael Parks) could possibly provide our desperate 'Net head with material for the show.

After a quaint conversation, Wallace learns the man's true purpose: to turn him into a walrus. Literally. Via surgery and other sick methodology. After receiving a desperate phone call from their friend, Teddy and Wallace's on-again, off-again gal pal Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) seek the help of a private eye named Guy Lapointe (???) to find him.

Forgive the triple question marks above. One of the joys in Tusk is watching a wildly famous international superstar, whose status has flagged a bit as of late, put on a putty nose and a goofball accent and steal the few scenes he's in. In fact, all the actors in Smith's psycho joyride bring a level of legitimacy to what is, basically, a THC-induced fever dream from everyone's favorite bearer of the comic geek flame.

If you wonder what Smith's take on Superman might have looked like, filtered through a desire to deconstruct the horror genre, this is it. Similar to his stellar Red State, the basic tropes are there. Smith then reinvents them, getting giggles out of the gross out and empathy out of insanity.

Parks is particularly good at reconfiguring his mad scientist serial killer into a sympathetic character. At first, we see him as just a nutty old man. Then the stories begin, including a stint lost at sea and his salvation at the fins of a walrus and connections are made. Before long, we wonder where this particular part of the plot will take us, and then -- BOOM! -- we shift over to Lapointe and his perspective.

Smith's big win with this hire is not the name so much as the performance. There's a lyrical quality to the character, a borderline caricature that frequently feels far more refreshing and exciting than anything the actor has done recently.

And then there's Smith, showing a similar level of growth. Apparently, pot suits this man, as he's made some major upgrades in his artistry since deciding to light up. Here, he uses the Fleetwood Mac song in two significant ways. At first, when we are being introduced to Howe and his horrible ideas, the score (by Christopher Drake) utilizes the melody for a threatening, discordant moment.

Then, when the rescue is on, Smith returns to the original song, showcases an ability to edit action along with a tune's inner subtext to create yet another amazing movie music moment. Elsewhere, he drops many of his more mannered designs to provide both fright and fun.

Tusk won't please everyone. It's juvenile, joke-oriented, and perhaps most importantly, not very scary. The special effects (from KNB's Robert Kurtzman) celebrate the old school and the practical while guaranteeing gorehounds at least a minimal amount of bloodshed.

It's what Smith doesn't do that makes Tusk so interesting. Instead of playing with the anticipated and the preconceived, he takes a intriguing premise and circumvents our expectations. He does what he wants, how he wants, love him or hate him. Just as Fleetwood Mac did when they abandoned the AM radio regularity of their career to become more unique and experimental, Smith does the same. The result for both was Tusk, something "real savage like", real weird, and real good.

8

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