Kevin Smith, possibly one of USA's biggest enfants terribles, is back to court the audience with his latest film. He simply picks up where he left off with Red State, blending his typical sense of humor with dashes of absurdity and morbid horror. The result is Tusk, a film that sways between comedy and horror, never quite settling for either one genre but succeeding in both. That is, if you're willing to let yourself be carried away by Smith's warped ideas.
Smith has entered a new phase of his career. He worked himself up from nobody (Clerks) to somebody (Cop Out), but he clearly wasn't too happy with who he'd become in the process. So he rebooted himself, went back to producing films on his own (Red State) and started his battle against the industry all over again. While this meant fighting hard to get his films out there, it gave him back all creative control and that's really paying off here.
Tusk carries all the signs of Smith's older comedies. A strong focus on dialogue (mostly useless but funny banter) blended with a few extreme caricatures and some utter absurdity layered throughout the plot. What's new here is the slide from traditional horror to morbid perversity. What starts off with a curious old man living alone in a secluded house quickly turns around to become a tale of past regrets, full of demented weirdness.
Tusk's about a young, successful podcaster (Wallice) travelling to Canada to interview the latest internet sensation. Things don't go as planned and unwilling to go back home empty-handed, Wallice takes a chance when he bumps into a strange ad in a local cafe's restroom. He drives out to the Howe estate for a talk with the estate's owner, but what he finds there defies his wildest dreams. Sadly for Wallice, he is about to become Howe's latest victim.
Visually Smith made some important strides forward. The comedy bits may still look a bit plain, but once the horror sets in Smith does great things with the setting, lighting and camera angles. The special effects aren't half bad either, especially considering the overall tone of the film. Not that they are 100% life-like or frighteningly realistic, but I definitely expected less. The fact that Smith was able to visualize everything in plain view without having to hide behind a less is more approach is quite the feat in itself.
Just like in Red State, the soundtrack plays a big part in building up the atmosphere. Comedy and horror are two genres that are tough to combine in one single film, especially when keeping them (mostly) confined to their own separate scenes. That's where the soundtrack steps in. Whenever the horror takes over Smith makes sure there's a strong surge of atmosphere coming from the music. I never really noticed this in his earlier films, but since he rebooted his career Smith has shown his smarts by betting heavily on a solid soundtrack.
One advantage Smith has over other indie directors is that he can land a pretty decent cast if needed. Justin Long and Haley Joel Osment (yes, the Sixth Sense kid) are pretty good leads, Michael Parks truly excels as the bad guy and Johnny Depp pops in around the halfway mark for one of his crazier parts in the past few years. It's a pretty random collection of actors, but somehow, much like the film itself, Smith manages to mould it into a fitting whole.
The first part should be well-received by long-time Smith fans, as the comedy happily dominates the film. The middle part finally introduces the horror elements, and while it's somewhat unsettling, Smith continues to hide Tusk's premise remarkable well, building up very slowly to the big turnaround. Once Smith is ready to reveal what Tusk is really all about, the final part spirals wildly into absurd and morbid dark comedy territory.
The mix of styles and genres won't be to everyone's liking. Tusk is not a traditional horror/comedy, Smith keeps the genres more separate from each other and once he does bring them together, there's a huge "what the fuck" factor that is sure to alienate a lot of people. The fun thing is that Smith can do this without worrying too much about anyone telling him not to. His newfound independence is a true blessing, one he exploits to the fullest. I thoroughly enjoyed Smith's new film and I surely hope he can keep this up for a while longer.