Thursday, 18 June 2015


tusk is one of the strangest films i've ever seen and you should probably skip this review, watch the movie and make your own mind up. there's something important happening in this film that i think is intentional. at its core, this is a film about what's gone wrong with the internet.

tusk follows a podcaster, wallace bryton (justin long), as he travels to canada to humiliate the latest target of his mean-spirited podcast in person. when the interview falls through he searches for another subject and comes across an ad posted by howard howe, an elderly gentleman seeking a lodger. in howe's ad he mentions a lifetime of adventures and thus howe becomes bryton's next subject. howe has other ideas and bryton soon finds himself a prisoner, subjected to a bizarre and horrific mutilation at the hands of his captor. his only hope is that his two friends ally (genesis rodriguez) and teddy (haley joel osment) can find him before it's too late.

tusk has an origin story almost as bizarre as the film itself. the idea came from an ad posted on gumtree by an old man seeking a lodger for his home overlooking queens park in brighton (yes, the brighton where i live). the only condition was that the lodger would have to dress as a walrus for a set amount of time each day. the ad captured smith's imagination, the idea turned into a story on an episode of his podcast and he made it into a film almost to prove a point - that any idea, no matter how insane, can become a reality if you know how to execute it.

all of this is old news. every review will no doubt retell the story above. i even wrote about it myself in the early days of this blog. but in a way, focusing on the origin detracts from the story the film is trying to tell. except for one important fact. the film was made to prove that because of the internet, awesome, creative stuff can happen. remember that, it's important.

as a film, tusk has a weird tone, veering between broad character-comedy and disturbing body-horror. the cast do a great job, particularly parks and long who throw themselves into the bizarre things they have to do on camera with real passion. osment and rodriguez provide solid support and johnny depp turns up to do a funny voice and wear a silly mustache. the funny moments are funny, but where the film really excels is in the body-horror department. there are a number of big reveals in the film, all the time showing more of what howe has done to bryton's body and each one of them more horrifying than the next. the final reveal actually reminded me of the ending of society. society was all about the third act orgy, here it's all about the walrus suit, and the suit (expertly created by robert kurtzman), when it first appears in all its glory, is a genuine shock that would give even yuzna's fx genius screaming mad george a few nightmares.

but this isn't simply a straightforward frankenstein-meets-misery horror movie. there's something more going on beneath the surface, and i think it's about the internet. specifically it's about internet trolls and how they've ruined everything.

for all his talk of being a podcaster, wallace bryton is essentially an internet troll. the gimmick of his podcast is to find embarrassingly awful videos, track down the person who made the video and humiliate them, either just through talking about them with teddy or by meeting them in person. there is a key scene in which his girlfriend, ally, takes him to task for this and tells him he used to be a nicer person. bryton counters that essentially being a dick online has built him a career. it's clear from this exchange that what bryton has sacrificed in order to have this career is his humanity. remember that, it's important.

when howe gets hold of bryton, he takes this idea one step further. he wants to take bryton's humanity away even further, by literally transforming him into an animal. howe too has aspects of the internet troll, particularly in his anonymity. through depp's character we learn that howe has had a previous identity. we also know he is a liar, and that calls into question everything he says. the flashbacks we are shown when howe tells his stories certainly look deliberately false, acting as visual representations of the lies he is telling. howe also has the same goal as the internet troll - he targets a public figure and through an act of dehumanisation he brings that person down to his level. he makes the man into an animal, like he is himself. isn't that exactly what the internet troll wants? to force a celebrity to fight on their terms so they can feel better about their own shitty existence? it's certainly what howe wants and i think this is the key to the whole film.

tusk is a warning. it's a film that visualises what happens in the comments section of any popular youtube video on a daily basis. it's a film about how the internet is taking away our humanity, and for that it is something truly audacious. remember, this is a film that exists because of the internet, and it should be a celebration of that fact. instead it is a damning thesis on why our idealised brave new world of creativity and collaboration cannot truly exist.

there's one other key piece of information here, one that i'm reluctant to bring up because in a way it's completely unrelated, but at the same time it seems completely related. there's something about what bryton becomes, this huge blubbery mass, unable to function as a normal human being, that reminded me of the 'too fat to fly' scandal that smith found himself at the centre of a few years ago. i'm not going to link to it, you can google it if you are that interested, but essentially smith was thrown off a plane for being overweight and the internet, being the warm, understanding place it is, turned this minor abuse of power by a major airline into a huge issue. the comparison isn't that 'oh, smith was thrown off a plane for being fat and the walrus is fat so it's like the walrus is him'. i'm saying that howe's dehumanisation of bryton is the same as the internet's dehumanisation of kevin smith. during the 'too fat to fly' scandal, smith was portrayed as something of a freak and that's exactly what howe does to bryton. he makes him into a freak. this makes me think that howe may be more than an uber-troll. he may be smith's representation of the whole of the internet.

ultimately, when we're looking at bryton's misshapen mass in the final scenes we are looking at a freak that howe has made for us. don't we do that every single day online? every time we click a link to a video of someone doing something ridiculous (or a 'news' item about an indie director being thrown off a plane), aren't we just spectators at a freak show? bryton becomes exactly the thing he would ridicule, and in a way we as a modern audience deserve no lesser fate ourselves.

personally, i think tusk is a complex, misunderstood work of genius and a modern-day nightmare alley. if you are at all interested in anything that i've said you should check it out immediately.

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