Tusk (2014), or How Kevin Smith Regained His Creative Soul
December 18, 2014 § Leave a comment
*Preface: I know this is my first post in 11 months. I’ve been working in the physical world and trying to get a footing professionally. I am re-starting this blog because it’s just part of who I am. I review movies. Not for money, or fame, or even an audience (though all of those would be splendid) but because it is a compulsion that I inevitably satisfy time and time again…even if I take a year off here and there. Without further ado, I present my history and critique of Kevin Smith’s “Tusk”:
To begin, I present a history lesson, because I haven’t written about film in forever so I’m allowing myself to sow some existential oats:
Kevin Smith may not be a revolutionary film maker, but he is most certainly an evolutionary one. Starting with 1994’s ultra-low budget self-financed “Clerks.”, a classic example of the can-do spirit and gumption of truly independent film making, Smith exploded onto the Hollywood scene with a movie he made with a few buddies in his home town, at work, because he loved movies. He was an actual clerk at a video store next door to the Quik Stop location eponymous with the film and term “Clerks”. Fast-forward 20 years and Smith is a world famous, wealthy Hollywood film maker who gets to visit the set of the new “Star Wars” trilogy before any normal human, who guest writes major comic book series for Marvel, who sells out venues that often hold major rock concerts, just so people can listen to him pontificate about pop culture. However, I would hesitate to call him venerated or revered, more so simply successful. About a decade ago, Smith grew out of his View Askew-niverse series of movies starring or co-starring a stable of characters first introduced in “Clerks” and his studio backed but still very indie follow-up “Mallrats”(while clerking is and probably always will be a real job, ‘Mallrats’ is most certainly a term whose relevance died during the dot com bubble and the rise of technological innovations in virtual communication and handheld devices with far more computing power than even the geekiest desktop computer spread of 1995) and apart from one last go around with “Clerks 2” in 2006 as a reward to best friend Jason Mewes aka Jay of Jay and Silent Bob, for finally getting clean off heroin, Smith has moved on.
First he tried to combine his nineties slacker witticisms with newly minted A-lister Seth Rogen’s lovable Jewish-Canadian Stoner Unlikely Romantic Comedy Lead persona in “Zack and Miri Make A Porno”, which, despite a ton of hype and a reasonably entertaining execution, didn’t exactly turn out to be a classic in either man’s filmographies. Then he moved on to a hackneyed hired gun directorial gig that seemed to crush his spirit with the way too meta buddy cop flick “Cop Out” in 2010, starring his temporary buddy Bruce Willis. While technically the highest grossing film of Smith’s career at $44 million domestic box office, “Cop Out” also withered Smith’s career because the film had zero originality or energy to it and, as Smith has told it during his various town hall pop culture rants as something between a monologist and a stand up comedian, Willis’ star ego and studio system educated sense of professionalism put Smith firmly in his place as a guy who makes Home Made Stoner Movies with his buddies, just on much larger budgets.
This obviously put Smith in some kind of an existential funk, because he tried to come roaring back with a low budget indie called “Red State”, featuring none of his usual players and starring lesser known teen actors who, with the exception of indie darling Michael Anganaro, sadly failed to display the screen presence or potential power of leading actors. I reviewed “Red State” on this very blog, as a matter of fact. Despite appearances from well established actors like John Goodman, Anna Gunn and Michael Parks, It was failed attempt at commentary and, or satire of some kind about various religious zealots and their plans for world domination, from infamous Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps to David Koresh and the Branch Davidians at Waco. The film could also easily have been construed as Smith’s interpretation of his own Rebel vs The System relationship with Hollywood (Hollywood being represented by John Goodman’s ATF character hell bent on finding an excuse to kill the cult members inside the compound in Smith’s movie aka independently minded creativity and expression). Smith vowed to only make movies with the unknown teenage actors (presumably excluding the in demand Anganaro) from then on, prepping a multi-part hockey epic that never came to fruition once the Canadian indie hockey dramedy Goon got released while Smith’s germ of an idea for a hockey movie, “Hit Somebody” lingered in development hell and his announced lead, Seann William Scott, jumped ship to the aforementioned rival production. Smith swore he’d make “Hit Somebody” with one of the unknown kids from “Red State”, but when he couldn’t find backing the project quietly died a merciful death. After taking a year or two off to mess around with his podcasts, Smith quietly wrote a draft of “Clerks 3”. Going back to his roots seemed to reinvigorate the artistic passions that once gave Smith the very Hollywood career he clearly felt had done him dirty for a time. This somehow led Smith to envisioning a new film series unofficially titled “The Great White North Trilogy”, three loosely interconnected films about Canada. The first film, still low budget and very much independently produced, “Tusk” came out earlier this year to a quiet but respectful reception.
( 8 out of 10 or A- ) “Tusk”, the first entry into Smith’s “Great White North” trilogy, of which the second entry “Yoga Hosiers” is currently filming, is by far Smith’s most polished, focused and dare I say original film. Based on one of his podcast episodes in which Smith found a tongue in cheek listing on a Canadian website that acts as the kind of events bulletin one sees in coffee shops and bars, “Tusk” is the story of a wildly successful podcaster Wallace (Justin Long) who seeks out original or off-beat personalities to interview and stories to enumerate. While up in Canada to interview the “Kill Bill Kid”, a teenager who loses a limb while recording himself slicing through the air not-so-gracefully with a very real samurai sword (based on early YouTube sensation “Star Wars Kid” linked here: http://bit.ly/1aD0Nj2 ) Wallace innocently discovers a cork board posting between beers at a local tavern, from a man boasting about a life of adventure on the high seas and the desire to share his stories with anybody who might need lodging. Wallace quickly finds his way to the man’s estate, deep in the wilderness and is promptly held against his will for his captor’s (Michael Parks) sinisterly specific idea for the ideal companion. The rest of the film is reminiscent of Dutch cult horror favorite “The Human Centipede: First Sequence” mixed in with Smith’s own signature verbose style of characters monologuing and wittily insulting one another. The movie features clever supporting turns by a now firmly grown up Haley Joel Osment of “The Sixth Sense” fame as Wallace’s podcast co-host, an impressively emotional turn by dependable eye candy Genesis Rodriguez as Wallace’s loyal but put upon longtime girlfriend and a cameo appearance I won’t give away as the goofy but ultimately quite professional detective Guy Lapointe (credited as Guy Lapointe in the credits, so if you don’t figure it out yourself you won’t be in on the joke) “Tusk” is a wonderful confluence of everything that gave Smith his career and nothing that stuck it in its various ruts. “Red State” was firmly described by Smith as horror, though it wound up being more of a heavy handed religious-political thriller. In the case of “Tusk”, Smith has achieved his apparent desire to give us his unique vision of a proper horror film.
While the film has characters that are indeed funny, it is in no way a comedy and takes itself seriously as horror while maintaining a healthy self-awareness that was sorely lacking in “Red State”. The cinematography, often cited as one of Smith’s greatest weaknesses, is quite beautiful and effective. The pacing and character arcs are firmly realized, with a chilling and tragic conclusion that stays true to being a committed tale of horror while maintaining a twinkle of comic irreverence that confirms it is very much a Kevin Smith creation.