If Kevin Smith's Tusk sounds like the sort of movie that was made on a dare... well, it basically was. The idea for the film originated on one of Smith's podcasts, in which Smith and co-host Scott Mosier began jokingly discussing the notion of a horror movie about a man being forced to live as a walrus. Smith decided to poll his listeners: if they wanted him to make the movie, they should tweet #WalrusYes. If they didn't, they should tweet #WalrusNo. The people spoke, Smith listened and Tusk was released in theatres just over a year later.
The chief problem with Tusk – and it has quite a few – is that Smith seems uncertain of whether he wants it to be a goofy, tongue-in-cheek midnight movie or an honest-to-goodness body horror film that takes its ridiculous premise as seriously as possible. Surprisingly enough, it works best in the latter mode. If Smith had given the entire film as much conviction as he gives its best scenes, he might have actually produced a cult classic.
The film begins with Wallace Bryton (Justin Long, Live Free or Die Hard), a successful podcaster with a raunchy sense of humor (once again, Smith demonstrates that he takes the whole “write what you know” maxim more literally than most). Each week, Wallace and his co-host Teddy (a chunky, affable Haley Joel Osmont, The Sixth Sense) spotlight a strange misfit of sorts and spend the entire show making fun of that person. Their latest target is a young man known as “The Kill Bill Kid,” who accidentally chopped his leg off while swinging a sword in the garage. Wallace travels to Manitoba for an exclusive interview, but upon his arrival discovers that the kid has committed suicide. Desperate to justify his trip to Canada, Wallace begins looking for another oddball to interview. He finds one.
The man's name is Howard Howe (Michael Parks, Red State), an elderly, wheelchair-bound man with a host of stories to tell. Howard regales Wallace with tales of meeting Ernest Hemingway, exploring the beaches of Normandy and surviving for weeks on a deserted island. What Wallace doesn't realize is that Howard is merely killing time to keep the unsuspecting podcaster from realizing that his tea has been laced with sleeping pills. When Wallace awakes, he's confronted with a horrible new reality: Howard plans to surgically alter Wallace and turn him into a human walrus.
It's a credit to Parks' skill as an actor that this material doesn't feel half as silly as it ought to. The veteran actor brings a fiery conviction to his long, literary monologues, and it helps that Smith's writing seems to improve exponentially when it comes to Howard's dialogue. It seems that Howard once shared a tender bond of sorts with a walrus (no, not that kind of bond), and is now attempting to recreate those happy memories in the most horrifying manner imaginable. Long's performance is compelling, too: he begins as an obnoxious motormouth, but we begin to pity him as Howard robs him of his humanity. “When I speak to you, you will only respond as a walrus,” Howard orders. Is there any greater fear for an enthusiastic talker like Wallace (or Smith) than losing the ability to speak?
Tusk isn't a particularly cinematic film – like the rest of Smith's movies, this is very much a point-and-shoot affair filled with static, lifeless images – but it's still refreshing to see the writer/director trying new things. Like his messy Red State, the movie seems to be an argument between Smith's thoughtful and juvenile impulses, though this one does a slightly better job of organically working the obligatory dick jokes into the mix. By the halfway mark, the movie seems to be hitting its stride, allowing the locquatious Parks and the fear-stricken Long to enter a compelling round of psychological combat. Then, Johnny Depp shows up and the whole thing falls apart.
Depp plays Guy LaPointe, a goofy Quebecois detective with an accent that lands halfway between French-Canadian and Werner Herzog. It seems that LaPointe has been hunting Howard for years, and Wallace's disappearance gives him a number of exciting new leads. Alas, nearly the entirety of the film's final act is occupied by Depp's goofy antics and long-winded monologues (nowhere near as much fun as Howard's), completely killing the film's narrative momentum. There is a time and a place for the (disputable) pleasure of watching Depp wear pancake makeup and do funny accents, but Tusk isn't it. Was Smith so excited to have secured the participation of a big star that he shoved everything aside to give Depp's whimsy as much room as possible? Or did his original script really call for a third act built around the wacky hijinks of a Clouseau-esque detective?
Either way, the only scene in the film's third act that really works is the climax, predictably but entertainingly set to the strains of Fleetwood Mac's wonderfully weird “Tusk.” The song was allegedly the film's single most expensive element, but it's easy to understand why Smith was willing to pay as much as he did. In retrospect, it feels as if the movie is as much an adaptation of the song's lyrics as it is of Smith's podcast idea: “Don't say that you love me! Just tell me that you want me!”
To say that Tusk is an uneven movie is putting it mildly. For every effectively horrifying moment or memorable monologue, there's a series of lazy Canadian jokes (Hockey! Poutine! Accents!) or a clumsy subplot (Genesis Rodriguez plays Wallace's girlfriend, but she gets little to do other than fret over his absence). Still, there are traces of something interesting here. Kevin Smith has delivered two movies in a row which effectively demonstrate that A) his interests are expanding in a positive way and B) he knows what a hidden treasure Michael Parks is. I can't really recommend Tusk, but I'd be lying if I called it forgettable or generic.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Year: 2014