The following contains spoilers to Tusk.
Dark comedy is a rich blend of pathos and macabre, and one that requires a tactful balance to be of good taste. (I’m trying to make this analogy, and yet I do not drink coffee.) For a dark comedy to work in a film, the time spent enriching a character has to be a thorough line, a sense of respect of the characters from the storyteller always evident in some form. What good is a character that an audience is meant to invest sympathy into, if a filmmaker (let’s say, for example, Kevin Smith), only sees their dehumanizing torture as means for a laugh-out-loud punchline?
But first: Is his walrus nightmare Tusk meant to be straight-up horror, with just campy interludes and a Canadian “Chug-EH-Lug” soda? The film’s blundering tone makes this a very complicated question to answer, but two notions point towards no. For one, Smith’s implementation of Guy LaPointe is more than him relishing a Johnny Depp cameo, but of Smith providing him carte blanche over whatever had been established in regards of tone, story, and pacing in the film. LaPointe’s investigator character is another example of an overwritten comedic fictional being that Smith attempts to cram into a concept, to simply serve it.
Secondly, there’s the whole originating podcast clip played during the film’s end credits, the worst artistic choice to be found in Tusk, and a facet more distracting than the rubbery walrus suit. I complained about it in my review, but here I’d like to point out how the clip of Smith and co-host Mosier laughing over their creation of this story completely messes with whatever personal experience one may have with Tusk. Instead of leaving the movie to have its own tone depending on the audience experience, he expresses it plainly for the viewer as to how they should feel. It’s a spoiler for one’s interpretation, as harmless as it may seem. Apparently, during the last scene in which a mutilated human being is abandoned by his ex-girlfriend and friend because he has fully lost his sense of humanity, not only in terms of his body shape but his inability to have his shrieks interpreted, but because he thinks like he has accepted a prison of which there is no escape, it’s meant to be funny.
Gaging Tusk now as a dark comedy, the aforementioned lack of laughter throughout its albeit absurd brutality leads to a truth about humanity in storytelling when killing, maiming, torturing, destroying, etc. characters. The degrees of humanity can be pushed, but it has to have a consistent force for its proper effect, it can’t be taken away. One can’t pretend to like its characters, and then show their existence is only for the sake of being destroyed, with no point at all. Slasher movies, one could argue, are based on a distant relationship in regards to humanity. Their horror may be relatable to an audience through the film experience, but when it comes to a fictional being’s expendability, we are not attached to them often aside from recognizing their existence as archetypes. Cry as they may or suffer gross pain, it’s not only the serial killers chasing them who don’t seem them as much more than walking blood packets waiting to be ripped open.
Tusk does not have this distant relationship, even as cold as Smith may be to the humanity of his characters, or as outrageous as the horror story’s arc strives for. The problem in Tusk begins with Smith handling of these characters, in which Smith’s chatty nature backfires against his interest in creating something so shockingly but harmlessly dark. The dialogue that he gives these fictional beings, and the time spent with them talking, actually makes them flesh-and-blood, or flesh-and-blood enough. In turn, especially when the horror of the film ramps up, the facets that are meant to eventually satisfy the walrus metamorphosis imprisonment only add to a wholly grotesque moment. It is not funny that Justin Long’s Wallace is paralyzed and screaming in his chair, begging for help from anyone who may hear his hollers outside this mansion; it is similarly not funny how Howard explains a long history of being dehumanized himself, but instead of becoming an accidental Youtube star as podcaster Wallace’s previous subject suffered, he instead experienced horrific abuse as a child for five years. Smith damns himself by wanting to make a brutal movie out of such visceral backstories of dehumanization, and then only complies to its theme of inhumane storytelling.
Even if Smith doesn’t intend for these moments to be funny, a sense of relief from the horror of these moments never arrives. The absurdity of this situation has itself become a completely disturbing spectacle of dehumanization, both for writer/director Smith and mad Canadian Howard (Michael Parks). The closest that Smith gets to inching back towards comedy is when Parks suddenly appears in a walrus suit of his own, trying to fight Wallace’s walrus as his own walrus. It’s absurd, and Parks plays it, as he does well in this movie, straight. But alas, that nagging sense of actually pitying these characters in various means, and now not being too stoked to see them share in a tusk-stabbing battle royale spurred by brutal examples of inhumanity, takes away any air of comedic value.
While wrestling with Tusk I am reminded of the films by the many losers to be found in Coen brothers lore, the serious men who are up against forces of fateful bad luck that eats them alive. Or I think specifically about Todd Solondz, a perfection in the art of dark comedy who presents America with its bleakest taboos, albeit with a loving care to characters of psychological issues. These are filmmakers among many who have established their own degree of dark comedy, albeit through moments of human horror. And as dark or pitiful or even disgusting as their characters may become (especially with Solondz and his endearment towards pedophiles) there is a sense of sympathy from the filmmakers that completes the representation they are attempting, in a way that Smith feels tone deaf to.
In another comparison, I can’t speak to whether The Guest director Adam Wingard likes Tusk or not, but I am going to apply the words from my recent interview with him to express how Kevin Smith’s walrus metamorphosis film Tusk does not succeed as a dark comedy. While we were conversing about a car chase that he found to be unnecessary in a recent movie, Wingard backed up the violence within the third act of his film The Guest with a notion that speaks not just to cool scenes in action movies, but also to premises in horror movies: “Everything should be based on story and characters, they should never be based on cool ideas and concepts; that comes later, that’s what you fit in after you have structured everything correctly.”
With Tusk, Smith did just that. He began with a concept, and then dumped some characters and a straightforward story on top of it. The result is something unsettling in itself, a tale about dehumanization that backfires in its intent for both terror and morbid laughter, and becomes an example of the importance of humanity in a film of character horror. It is disturbingly uncertain where the horror ends in Tusk and where its comedy actually begins … even if we know from its adapted podcast that Smith laughed through his creation of it.