You’ve never seen a Kevin Smith film quite like this. Even after the man’s first foray into the horror genre with the flawed but tonally ambitious Red State, I never would have expected the man best known for lewd discussions over pop-culture minutia to take note of The Human Centipede and more or less say, “Hey, let me try.” After a short self-imposed retirement, it seems like Smith is creatively reinvigorated, crafting even more boutique films that no one else would make, and Tusk is a prime example of this. Whether or not the world needs a film where a man is kidnapped and physically transformed into a walrus is a personal question you’ll have to answer in your own space.
Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) is an egotistical podcaster who is something akin to the mean-spirited version of Ira Glass. He travels around the country interviewing strange people for their strange stories, all to relate to his travel-phobic pal and podcast co-host, Teddy (Haley Joel Osment, all grown up). The two guys then crack jokes and make fun of these pathetic weirdos and losers. While in Canada, Wallace finds a curious posting in a men’s room from a man named Howard Howe (Michael Parks) seeking a companion to share his lifetime of stories with. Wallace jumps at the chance, enters Howard’s secluded home, and listens as the older, wheelchair-bound eccentric spins several yarns, notably a tale where he was lost at sea. His only “friend” was a walrus who he credits with helping to save his life. He misses his seafaring friend, and Howard has secretly drugged Wallace with the intent or transforming him into a human-walrus composite.
If you’re a fan of bonkers body horror and demented humor, then Tusk just might be a short but potently nasty little treat for you. If you’ve seen enough similar genre entries you’ll likely be guessing several of the plot turns before they happen, like the tea being laced with a chemical or Howard holding back his real and fiendish capabilities. However, there are moments that simply defy prediction, especially the last half of the movie where Smith doubles down on the madness of executing his premise. The tone is rather uneven and can prove to be a hindrance, with the first half more dramatic and the second half more absurd comedy. Smith impresses early on by slowly teasing the reveals: the duplicitous Howard, the revelation of missing parts, the full-on transformation. The knowing camerawork and long, creepy conversations build suspense even when we stop and realize how ridiculous this entire movie can be. And that’s not an insult but a compliment, even a saving grace when the movie takes a few too many unwieldy detours (more on that later). With a premise this bizarre, and from a director in such unknown territory as Smith has waded, I, dear reader, was laughing throughout. Tonally, it felt like Smith was acknowledging the silliness of his movie but still being true to genre. There are some genuinely creepy and unsettling moments sprinkled throughout. The practical makeup gore can at times make skin look like a crumply raincoat. The final image of Long as a human walrus is both ludicrous and a horrifying sight you cannot un-see.
Much of the movie is a series of conversations and monologues featuring Long (Dodegball, He’s Just Not That Into You) and Parks (Kill Bill). Hell, even Genesis Rodriguez (Man on a Ledge) gets a monologue; she’s Wallace’s put upon girlfriend who doesn’t like the man he’s become with fame. It’s a rather rote part undeserving of a performance as good as Rodriguez delivers. She must have thought, “Here’s my acting reel for the next few years; look casting directors, I can do much more than look hot.” Back to the central duo, Long and Parks. The film’s greatest assets are these actors and the movie is at its best when they share the screen. After his skin-crawling turn as a bile-spewing zealot in Red State, I expected Parks to be unhinged and frightening, which he is in spades. The man’s calm demeanor is especially eerie. When he breaks into openly mocking his victims, adopting Wallace’s howling cry, is another moment that bounces from creepy to funny and back to creepy again. It’s a performance pattern that Parks nimbly dances throughout the film. Honestly, this may be the strongest performance of Long’s career. He gets to portray an array of different shades with his character, from egomaniacal jerk to timid victim and finally raging science experiment (Smith’s script reminds you often how much of a jerk Wallace was). It’s more than just a performance of panicked screams. Long manages to find a character here and stays true to him, even as Wallace’s psychological grasp is broken. He almost grounds the absurd third act due to the strength of his performance.
It’s that more jocular second half where Tusk starts to lose its momentum and focus, and that’s primarily because of the introduction of the character Guy Lapointe (Johnny Depp), a French Canadian private eye. Yes, that Johnny Depp, starring in a Kevin Smith movie, adopting a silly accent and a silly fake mustache and becoming what is essentially his take on Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau. It’s a character that feels like he walked in from the set of a different movie, one that is far more aimlessly wacky. The sequences with Lapointe are also laboriously overstuffed. They just go on and on, and you fee whatever sense of momentum starting to flee, sadly. Depp is amusing and I’m genuinely thrilled to see him in a small movie where he can afford to be even weirder. The problem is that the Lapointe scenes feel more like an improv session that Smith was afraid to cut short or nudge in a different direction, as if he was so gracious about Depp agreeing to be involved that he ceded all control of those scenes. The introduction to the character is a ten-minute sequence, itself with an overextended flashback, and after the initial shock and fun of watching Depp wears off, I started wishing to get back to the man-walrus.
Tusk is a unique experience, a macabre experimental lark from Kevin Smith, but it also seems to be the first in a new direction for a man who made his millions on stoner comedies. Smith is currently underway on three other movies, all of them horror, two of which are the next stages in what has become his Canadian Trilogy of Terror. While Tusk hasn’t made a blip at the box-office (if ever there was a film that cried out for on-demand, here it is), it has reawakened Smith’s creative impulses and now the guy can’t stop. Tusk is gross, funny, and genuinely creepy before it goes overboard with its very special guest star. I understand from a plot standpoint why another main character was necessary, but the movie needs some further discipline and tightening that it lacks. Basically, after reading the premise, you’ll know whether or not this film is for you. My girlfriend accompanied me without any knowledge of the plot or the genre, and she enjoyed it. Perhaps there’s hope for you as well.
Nate’s Grade: B-