Having entered a new phase of defiantly independent filmmaking, Smith followed up “Red State” with a bolder step into horror with an off-the-wall body horror that feels as much Cronenberg – and even Lars Von Trier – as it does Kevin Smith and while it pushes further into pure horror than his previous film, it’s also got a stronger View Askew flavour to it, although Smith is careful to ensure the comedy amplifies rather than undermines the horror.
When arrogant and callous podcaster Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) travels to Canada to interview a viral sensation the “Kill Bill Kid” (based loosely on the “Star Wars Kid”), he’s disappointed to find out the online mockery has driven his interviewee to suicide. Irritated that his trip has been for nothing, he finds a leaflet offering free room and board for the night and the guarantee of hearing interesting stories. Intrigued, he ventures into the Canadian wilderness to the isolated home of Howard Howe, a man with dark and fascinating stories and a darker and more terrifying agenda.
“Tusk” is a movie which takes a turn for the absurd at the half-way point and it may be there that it loses some of its audience but for those who stick with it, there’s a rewarding mixture of fairy-tale, slasher movie and surreal gothic horror. Smith plays with various horror tropes on the way to the movie’s grand reveal, developing a claustrophobic and disturbing atmosphere that paves the way for what’s to come. The set-up, and occasional, increasingly poignant flashbacks, are punctuated with classic Kevin Smith verbal stylings and underpin the film’s thematic reflections on the dehumanising effects of modern life mixed with grotesque karmic retribution.
It’s a combination of styles and genres which doesn’t blend flawlessly and as a cinematic cocktail it bears more similarity to the curdled shot stylings of a Zombie Brain Haemorrhage than the blended elegance of a classic Tequila Sunrise, but like the cocktails when you knock it back in one go, it tastes fine and has the desired effect. It’s a move that almost defies description and is unique – not just uniquely Kevin Smith – but pretty much uniquely its own special creature (literally).
Carrying the absurdity ends up being a three-man job. Justin Long is great as the arrogant and unlikable podcaster even as the film subverts your opinion of him by gradually revealing the performative aspects of his online persona which have started to infiltrate his ‘real’ life. It’s a wonderfully subtle foreshadowing that the horrifying transformation to come is merely building upon a self-inflicted dehumanisation. Next up is Michael Parks, undeniably the star of the show. Cordial, inscrutable and menacing by turn, at every point he owns the scene and makes the character’s descent into unbridled madness terrifying realistic. The final piece of the puzzle is as delightfully, whimsically ridiculous as the rest of the film is darkly ludicrous. Johnny Depp’s French-Canadian detective Guy Lapointe is a deliberately outré, exaggeratedly silly performance and perfectly bridges the gap between the grounded and the absurd parts of the movie. He’s also instrumental in setting up a couple of minor characters who will go on to star in the follow-up to this monster mash.
My favourite aspect of “Tusk”, though, is the confirmation that Smith has evolved into one of the most uncompromising filmmakers working today. Whether or not you embrace his vision is moot – he’s done taking notes and is happily making the kind of films he wants to and if the fans (and wider audiences embrace it, that’s a bonus). And let’s not forget, this is, officially and incontrovertibly, an A24 film.
I was wary of “Tusk” before I watched it but having experienced the full triumph and folly of it, all I have to say is “Goo goo g’good job, Kevin Smith!”