Tusk : Ambition Hidden Behind the Absurd (3500 words)
Kevin Smith is annoying; he is a great director (or storyteller) who doesn’t have the confidence to consider himself so and to act accordingly. (it’s only my opinion, I obviously cannot be sure about this).
Tusk is a good example of this strange bias. It tells the story of a guy who is abducted by a crazy old man who transforms him, through surgery and forced disguise, into a walrus because the sole real friend he ever had in his life was a walrus he called Mr.Tusk and which had saved him from a shipwreck.
How can you be taken seriously with that sort of screenplay ? On wikipedia there is a quote of Kevin Smith saying: “I’m not pretending to be Stanley Kubrick godammit ! I’m talking about making a movie about a man in a fucking walrus outfit. To make it short, it’s just crazy how much we’re nevertheless very close to making something very good.”
So, the walrus outfit is just an artistic constraint; something that blocks your ambition or your desire to make the best movie ever made and helps you focus your skills on not making a bad movie. It also lowers people’s expectations that which is reassuring when you’re not very confident about your work.
Except that in this case, the artistic constraint is too big. Kevin Smith simply wants to leave himself no chance to make something that will be taken seriously, so that the potential failure doesn’t get to him (again, it's pure speculation here). “Of course it didn’t work, it was a movie about a guy in a walrus outfit.” It’s self-sabotage. I loved Red State and was lent Tusk by a friend and the cover of the DVD itself prevented me from watching the movie for about a year.
For f*** sake, the description of his channel on youtube is “Kevin Smith first came to attention as the writer/director of a film called Clerks. It's been all downhill ever since.” It’s supposed to be humour of course, but I don’t find that kind of self-deprecation funny.
On the rotten tomatoes page for the movie, several reactions echo this problem perfectly (there also are positive reviews):
“Tusk is an overextended, tonally incoherent joke that would make viewers squirm even if it didn't involve a bloody and demented medical experiment.”
“'Tusk' opens with the sound of two men laughing at their own jokes, so I guess a doff of the cap is due to the filmmaker for encapsulating his movie so efficiently, right from the jump.”
“Tusk's inherent absurdity would much better have been played straight and subtle all the way through to the end, rather than covered over with the broadest layers of blubbery, fish-in-a-barrel slapstick. Still, really enjoyed the first half...”
The audience mistakes the movie for a joke. And how could they not when at the end of the credits you can hear Kevin Smith and a friend laughing their asses off at their idea of a final fight between Howard Howe and Wallace Bryton disguised as walruses, or at Teddy and Ally bringing a fish to Wallace in order to get his attention ? The director of the movie himself invites you not to take it seriously. Well then *beep* you Kevin Smith, I’m taking your movie seriously. It’s smart, it’s deep, it’s not funny and it showcases talent.
I only needed the first scene to see my negative expectations be crushed single-handedly.
This introduction is strong. Wallace and Teddy laughing at a boy who cuts off his leg with a sword is intensely good. It punches you in the faces with the main theme of the movie.
When watching the video of the Kill Bill Boy playing with his sword, we spontaneously believe that Wallace and Teddy are laughing because the “kid” doesn’t know how to manipulate the weapon. Also, I thought the sword was a toy and that it looked ridiculous in the hand of a teenager.
But suddenly the kid cuts off his leg and you realise that Teddy and Wallace were laughing their asses off because of this dreadful outcome. Until that moment you were thinking “tsss, they’re laughing at a poor (retarded) kid, stupid assholes” but suddenly, the movie takes an unexpected step into darker territories. It isn’t a question of “mocking” or of “feeling superior” but of having lost the capacity to be empathetic.
To be able to perceive his tragic accident as a slapstick joke, you need to be unaware of (or blind to) what it means for the boy to have lost a leg. It’s a very strong representation of a serious threat of our post-modern lives: we transform other people into characters and elements of the real into flat signs, simple signifiers carrying a meaning and behind which reality has vanished.
This introduction is smartly and precisely written but Kevin Smith did everything he could so that people would simply take it as “Yeah, this movie is going to be a joke about something horrible, but it’s just a joke.”
It isn’t a coincidence that Wallace Bryton should be some kind of story teller and not a writer. He is not a man who tries to elevate his material. On the contrary, he boasts about his capacity to be raunchy and provocative because that’s what people want.
His work relies on his capacity to deny human beings the right to be considered as such. He is a destroyer of individuals. And the way he destroys them is by transforming them into signs that should not trigger any emotion or empathy, signs that only exist in order to entertain.
On the contrary, Howard Howe is a man who tells stories but stories full of respect for the living; stories that bow before the reality behind them.
When he talks about the deaths of all the soldiers on Omaha beach, his voice shatters for a second. “When the reports came back of how many… boys had fallen at Omaha.” He is still emotionally distraught by what happened on that day and he doesn’t use the term “soldiers” but “boys” to refer to those who died. He sees the human beings beyond the role.
Through his stories he is trying to awaken Wallace’s empathy (through identification); Ernest Hemingway prevented from fighting along with other men, the “boys” who die, then a shipwreck and then the walrus.
If Wallace had showed true empathy and pain, if he had forgotten about his stupid podcast, if he had become truly moved by the reality behind these stories Howard would have spared him. But the young man doesn’t give a shit, he only rejoices in the sensationalism of what he is hearing… and doesn’t identify with any of the victims which become more and more anonymous, insignificant, animalistic as Howard goes along. Wallace could have identified with Ernest Hemingway or the soldiers, but he didn’t and Howard slowly goes to the lowest possible common denominator: an animal.
Wallace’s character is interestingly written. He is an asshole but of a very special kind. He is not a man who’s never been sensitive and who could simply learn empathy. He is a man who’s given up on being human, on worth. He constantly comments on his own worthlessness, on how cynical or selfish or despicable he sounds. However, he carries on behaving the way he does.
When she reproaches him with his behaviour Ally is hypocritical because, as he says, when he was a good guy, Wallace was a loser. He was insignificant whereas now that he is a putrid pathetic excuse of a human being, he is successful. If truly she believed in what she is saying, she would just dump him for his friend Teddy. But she doesn’t.
So, Wallace was forced by society and the people around him into this character. He didn’t want to remain a loser and became despicable but at least successful. Simply, he used to be a nice guy because it served his interests (securing Ally’s love) and then he became an asshole because it served his interests.
Wallace’s background is important because it alters the meaning of his tragic “experience” with Howard. He doesn’t learn about sensitivity, empathy and pain, he learns about how much he had become an enemy of something he cherished and cherishes. Also, it makes his transformation into a walrus, his second transformation. He used to be a worthy human being, then he became a worthless one and then he became an animal.
4-I am the walrus
It isn’t a coincidence either that the first thing that Howard should “remove” from Wallace is his legs. Human beings stand up, it’s the reason why we were able to develop the brain we have if I remember well. It is very symbolic to first have Wallace kneel.
But, and it’s going to sound far-fetched when it’s not one bit, “to stand up for sth” means “to defend.” Wallace was incapable of standing up for something (who he was) and therefore, metaphorically, his legs were useless. It becomes incredibly interesting when Howard sculpts the young man’s shinbones into tusks, in french “défenses” (de “se défendre” to defend oneself): the teeth that elephants and walruses have in order to defend themselves… and with which Wallace will kill Howard at the end of the movie. This displacement allows his legs to keep their meaning of “standing up for sth” even when the young man doesn’t have legs anymore.
So, Wallace’s narrative arc is the slow learning of what he considers worth fighting for. He abandoned his former self, the guy whom Ally loved, simply because he didn’t think it was useful anymore. In a way, he didn’t realise that what you are is always ideological and political, that not everything is about “survival of the fittest”; an expression which is always a synonym of “being cowardly, submit and sacrifice others.” And in this situation it wasn’t exactly “survival” as Wallace is presented as a vain man, he changed because he wanted to be considered “a cool guy” or more precisely “a manly man.” Wallace has a problem with his masculinity. He compensates for something with his big moustache and he seems quite jealous of the bone that some mammals have in their penis.
Howard thus pushes Wallace to his extreme limits: Is the young man going to accept to be a walrus in order to survive ? Or will he find something that he couldn’t bear losing ? His legs, his arms, his tongue, his human shape.
If reduced to this state of dejection he still finds the will to live, then he IS a walrus, he is nothing more than a walrus.
One thing that astonished me in this film is that the motivations of the “villain” are not only understandable but never feel like an excuse. On the contrary, they elevate the movie.
Howard was saved by a walrus and then killed it because he was starving, only to realise that he had killed the most precious thing he had ever had in his life, something that human beings had never been able to provide him. The story of the numerous ways in which the man was abused is intense and emotionally heavy and I didn’t find his desire to recreate his walrus friend hard to believe. More, it does not even sound crazy. When Howard selects Wallace as his next victim, he gives it a serious thought beforehand. I didn’t see a man mistaking reality with some sort of fantasy but a man doing something crazy because its symbolic meaning soothes his psychological pain.
There isn’t a moment in the film at which anything feels gratuitous: forcing Wallace to swim, to eat a fish, to fight like a walrus. It all looks grotesque and ridiculous of course, but it actually ads to the point that the movie is making. How could Wallace endure this without giving up on life at some point ? When Howard pulls his chain and forces him into the water so that he learns how to swim, the pride of being a human being should prevent Wallace from swimming. Can you imagine what the young man has to do in order not to sink ? Wave his “tail” idiotically… death’s embrace sure must be tempting. When he spots another dead walrus/man at the bottom of the pool, he takes it as “That crazy old fuck is serious ! He is going to let me drown !” and not as “Maybe this boy gave up because he thought life wasn’t worth it anymore.”
And so Wallace swims… and eats a raw mackerel. At this point I think it should be underlined that it is a lot easier than we usually think to let yourself die. Dying “like a hero” when you’ve got a lot to lose might be difficult, but dying when you’ve lost your legs, and arms, and tongue and teeth is easy because consciousness becomes the reason of your pain and unconsciousness a relief; being awake only means being aware of everything that you’ve lost and of the miserable life that awaits you. The psychological pain of this is unbearable, or should be.
Wallace is capable of coping with it because nothing is worth anything to him but “being alive” the rest is expendable. As long as you do not directly kill someone, everything’s fine, you’re innocent.
On the contrary, Howard is aware of the fact that values are more important than “being alive.” His whole narrative arc is so incredibly moving. He recreates Mr.Tusk so that the walrus can kill him instead of the contrary. It brings tears to my eyes. I’m not saying that the animal’s life was more important than Howard’s or that a walrus is more important than a human being. What I’m saying is that Mr.Tusk incarnated compassion, generosity and friendship to Howard; he incarnated the simple desire that a living being can have of not seeing another living being suffer. And it was the first time anyone showed that kind of feelings towards Howard. By killing Mr.Tusk, Howard killed compassion and a world without compassion is not worth living in.
We could think that by killing Howard, Wallace remains what he is: a worthless being who will endure, inflict and adapt to anything in order to remain alive. But it wouldn’t mean much.
What I think happens is that Wallace truly avenges Mr.Tusk for ideological reasons. Howard killed empathy, generosity and gratitude by killing this walrus. He made the world purely practical and survivalist (and thus a-spiritual): a world in which you can laugh at someone who cuts off his own leg accidentally in order to be popular or at someone who is transformed into a walrus through surgery by a crazy old man.
Now he sees Howard’s point, the ability to accept that there are things more important than one’s survival would have prevented everything from happening. Howard showed no compassion and no awareness of the pain he was inflicting to Wallace because all that mattered to him was his own personal selfish agenda. He made a pure object out of Wallace that which wasn’t difficult as the young man had already accepted to be one (by shifting from one personality to the opposite one as if nothing mattered).
When in the last shot of the movie Wallace sheds a tear, he reveals his newborn humanity. He eventually shows regret and acknowledges that there was something worth fighting for, that he’s lost something. It seems pretty obvious, but it’s not. You can endure a lot of things without experiencing pity for yourself. Crying because of your fate is not something necessarily easy.
The dynamic of feelings is quite intelligent here. Wallace cannot be compassionate with himself for what is happening to him as long as he doesn’t admit the worth of compassion and thus that he is responsible for the death of the Kill Bill Kid. Human beings are not as hypocritical and selfish as we make them out to be. You cannot truly feel compassion for yourself without having compassion for others, just like people who are harsh and judgmental also are with themselves. There is an inescapable reflexivity in the way human beings consider themselves and others.
When he learns about loss, Wallace also learns about the Kill Bill Boy’s loss. It only takes him a lot more than an “eye for an eye logic” to admit it.
Earlier on, I was talking about Wallace’s shinbones becoming his tusks. When he stabs Howard, Wallace is using his “legs.” So, metaphorically he is standing up for something.
It’s really a beautiful ending. Howard makes himself deserving of Mr.Tusk’s “love” by bringing the worst individual to appreciate what the animal represented and avenge it in the name of these values.
It’s a deep story. It’s not necessarily genius or anything, it’s just a good story and a good film. Moreover, there isn’t a more important story to be told in our times than the one of a human being who takes his individuality for granted and who learns that not everything is acceptable for the sake of being alive.
7-Other elements that revolves around the themes of the film.
In this movie, Johnny Depp incarnates Guy LaPointe, an obnoxious Canadian detective. Many critics found the movie to be very unbalanced tonally and the appearance of LaPointe is the moment at which things become truly disorienting. We’ve just been introduced to the ridiculous walrus outfit and are somewhat questioning the seriousness of this story which seemed to be very serious until that moment. Is the movie just a big joke or what ? Are we supposed to be involved emotionally or not ? Most probably, we decide to wait and see. After everything that I’ve said above, it must be pretty obvious how these question are spot on the thematic of the film.
But enters Guy LaPointe a complete joke of a character which it is very easy to understand as “this movie doesn’t take itself seriously.”
The thing is, beyond his superficial ridicule, Guy LaPointe is the sole guy to take the story seriously. This ridicule echoes the one of the Kill Bill Boy except that here, it’s the life of the “cool” character that is in the hand of the ridiculous one… not the contrary.
Wallace killed/sacrificed the Kill Bill Boy because he didn’t see any worth in his life. Guy LaPointe is a broken man who was ridiculed because of his theories about Howard Howe transforming young men into monsters but who carries on searching for the killer “beyond ridicule.”
Wallace killed a boy because he was ridiculous. Guy Lapointe is the sole who could possibly save him because he endured ridicule, he didn’t give up on who he was and what he thought even though it made a joke out of him.
The Kill Bill Boy is ridiculous because he copies Kill Bill and hurts himself doing so. But, Guy Lapointe finds the place where Wallace is detained by using a trick he saw in The Big Lebowski.
So, Guy Lapointe’s character is an incredibly strong one in my opinion because he incarnates the strength to endure ridicule in order to stand for something. He is the only one in the story who gives a shit. In 2016, standing up for something has become ridicule and therefore our true heroes will be everything but cool. We need to learn to see beyond “coolness.”
It is a very nice touch that the detective should be played by an unrecognizable Johnny Depp. The movie had a 3 million dollars budget which must be close to the smallest budget you can get in Hollywood but however it stars Johnny Depp, the hero of Pirates of the Caribbean the second or third most profitable franchise of all time. The guy was in the top 10 most overpaid actors in the world several times. He is a giant star and he plays in Tusk hidden under so much make up that he is unrecognizable.
This makes a very strange character out of Guy LaPointe because he is the incarnation of the unpopular, but you know that behind his facial features, there’s Johnny Depp, and you can spot the star from time to time. This raises the question of “what do you like about Johnny Depp ?” is it because he is cool and popular and used to be quite beautiful ? He is an interesting character as Guy Lapointe but he is certainly not the cool Johnny Depp that you’re accustomed to. Are you willing to go beyond the surface ?
Now, I watched the sequel, and where Clerks or Tusk feels like they have a low budget, Yoga Hosers simply feels slightly amateurish and unfinished. It's sad because again, the themes are serious and interesting. It again talks about the threat of fascism that lies in the culture of popularity on the internet. Red/green thumbs. Mobile phones. Youtubers etc... this second movie deserved to be better.