Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review: Tusk

Image courtesy of A24.
On the one hand, I can appreciate that Kevin Smith attempts to break out into new territory with the extremely strange "Tusk," a horror film about a cynical podcast host captured by a deranged Canadian who attempts to turn him into a walrus. On the other, I wish the result had been better.

In the mid-90s, Smith drew praise for his witty banter and low key cinematic style in films such as "Clerks," "Chasing Amy" and the controversial "Dogma." Since the turn of the 21st century, it's been more of a struggle for the filmmaker with results ranging from good ("Clerks II") or mediocre ("Red State") to catastrophic ("Cop Out"). "Tusk" can probably be lumped in with "Red State," also a horror film, as a picture that wins points for attempting something different, but with middling results.

Justin Long plays Wallace Bryton, who hosts a popular podcast with his buddy Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) during which the duo poke fun at people who embarrass themselves online. Wallace decides to travel to Canada to interview the "Kill Bill Kid," a guy who accidentally slices off his leg in fairly gory detail in a You Tube clip while wielding a sword. For the sake of moving the picture forward, you've got to extend your disbelief to accept that the poor schmuck would actually post the video online.

Upon arriving in the "Great White North," to which Canada is continuously referred in the film, Wallace finds that his interview is not going to happen during a sequence that is genuinely affecting. But Wallace stumbles across another oddball - Howard Howe (Michael Parks) - who promises to regale him with eccentric stories, so he takes the bait.

Howe tells Wallace that he once met Ernest Hemingway while fighting in World War II and spins a strange story about how he was once saved by a walrus after his ship capsized. But after taking a few sips of some tea that has obviously been spiked, Wallace passes out and awakens to find that one of his legs has been removed and he is being held captive by the demented Howe.

I think it's safe to say I'm not giving away anything here, considering how "Tusk" is being marketed, but Howe's ultimate plan is to sew Wallace's arms to his torso, remove his legs, add tusks to his mouth and place him inside a walrus suit made up of human skin, where he will forever remain as the psychopath's beloved pet.

The film, which plays as a slightly less gory version of "The Human Centipede," originated from a podcast and it's clear to see that its concept is slightly half-baked. It's as if Smith thought the outrageous storyline would sell itself without completely mapping it out. That being said, the picture gets some decent mileage out of the Golden Rule, in that those who mistreat others may have some pretty nasty karma heading their way.

One of my problems with the film is that Wallace is portrayed as such an unrepentant jerk that he's difficult to sympathize with and it becomes obvious late in the film that this was a calculated move to eventually set up his capacity to show empathy and display emotion.

Also, the screenplay takes great pains to poke fun at Canadians, most of whom say "eh" and "aboot" (about) over and over throughout the film. It's not that I'm being overly sensitive - but it's just not that funny. And Johnny Depp pops up in a cameo as an Inspector Clouseau-type character who is, at first, amusing, but eventually stops the action dead in its tracks during every scene in which he is featured. A sequence during which he recalls previously meeting Howe is almost painful to watch.

I'll give Smith credit for attempting something different with "Tusk" and I can appreciate that his film contains some ideas, despite their not being completely developed. But those anticipating the Kevin Smith comeback might have to wait a little longer.

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