Written and Directed by: Kevin Smith
Starring: Justin Long, Michael Parks, and Haley Joel Osment
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"I don't wanna die in Canada!"
Career departures have rarely been as stark or pronounced as the one Kevin Smith has been embarking on for the past few years. After carrying the torch for the 90s indie-movie scene, he parlayed his success into a shot at Hollywood that crashed and burned with Cop Out, leaving an already insular filmmaker to become even more so. With Red State, Smith uncharacteristically turned to the horror genre to make a characteristically gabby film that a carries itself with an unearned profundity without adding anything substantial to the discourse it exploits.
It would seem that film was a harbinger rather than an outlier, as Tusk returns Smith to horror territory, where he once again has made a rambling film that almost coasts on a compelling performance by Michael Parks. On the surface, it appears to be the strangest film of Smith’s career, but it’s hardly his most daring or provocative; instead, it feels almost like a calculated oddity, as if it were the completely untamed musings of a self-admitted stoner looking to blur the line between man and animal in the most empty and frustrating way imaginable: by making a totally unnecessary lark out of it. Tusk carries many of the hallmarks of a director who doesn’t give a fuck, only it’s not entirely a virtue in this case.
To its credit, Tusk isn’t exactly squandering a rich platform like its predecessor did. Rather, it’s Smith’s entry into the timeworn genre staple that finds oblivious outsiders carelessly intruding upon the wilds of a foreign land to meet a gruesome fate, something star Justin Long is no stranger to after his turn in Jeepers Creepers over a decade ago. Here, Long is Wallace Bryton, smarmy, mustachioed podcaster who comes off as the hipster Geraldo Rivera; along with co-host Teddy (Haley Joel Osment), he finds and exploits various oddities across the globe.
His latest discovery (the “Kill Bill Kid,” an obvious riff on the decade-old “Star Wars kid” meme, in case you were wondering if Smith could resist obvious pop culture nods) takes him to Manitoba, where he quickly becomes sidetracked by an ad promising room and board in exchange for companionship. Intrigued, Wallace seeks out Howard Howe (Parks), an eccentric old man holed up in a creepy, cavernous old mansion full of bizarre trinkets from his supposedly incredible life. After regaling Wallace with several tales about his past exploits (including a run-in with Ernest Hemingway at Normandy), his actual, more sinister intentions are revealed: he intends to imprison Wallace and literally turn him into a walrus.
Tusk features a credit I’ve never seen on a film before: “inspired by a Smodcast” (Smith’s personal podcast branding), as it's technically conceived from Smith’s own discovery of a similar want-ad promising lodging in exchange for the lodger’s willingness to wear a walrus suit. Apparently, Smith and longtime cohort Scott Mosier babbled about its possibilities on-air, a conversation that served as the basis for Tusk—and it shows. Even without knowing its origins, it’d be easy to peg Tusk as the long-winded prattling of a couple of stoner buddies, particularly in the way it takes a sparse setup and keeps tacking on overblown monologues and plot developments, some of which barely figure into the overall proceedings: “Like, what if we totally revealed that Wallace’s girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) is cheating on him, man? Or what if we had just about everyone deliver ponderous monologues to give the illusion of adding weight and importance?”
Granted, that latter tactic isn’t half bad when it’s applied to Parks, who admirably elevates Smith’s bullshit to something approaching a haunting poetry. His Howe is easily the most gripping character here, and not just because everyone else is a void. Parks is genuinely fascinating, particularly in his ability to shift from an inviting, gentlemanly demeanor to something entirely sinister. Though Smith saddles Howe with the most predictable backstory imaginable (childhood trauma ramped up to Rob Zombie levels of absurdity), Parks finds an incongruous pathos dwelling at the center that momentarily threatens to drag Tusk to greatness.
In fact, the film is initially quite effective as a pure horror film: unfolding inside Howe’s spooky, dimly-lit mansion crawling with strange artifacts, Tusk certainly looks the part of a bleak, rural nightmare: surrounded by nothing but the desolate Canadian wilderness, Wallace is truly hopeless—and this is before he’s transformed into an inhuman creature. It would seem that one can’t trek to the Great White North without indulging in some Cronenbergian body horror, and Robert Kurtzman’s walrus creature makes for a staggering image that would be all set to haunt your nightmares—if only Smith were invested enough in the absolute horror of it all.
Instead, he takes an all-too-glib approach, which wouldn’t be terrible out of hand if Smith were clever about it or engaged in black-hearted humor to any sort of horrific or enlightening effect. In lieu of that, he only offers predictably base humor in the way of dick and fart jokes, movie references, and several jabs at Canadian culture. Even the more effective early-going is undercut by Long’s decision to go too broad and goofy in his interactions with Park. While the latter is providing some truly incredible gravitas (especially considering the material), the former is all too quick to act like a total asshole. It has the effect of a moronic internet commenter bringing nothing to a deeply interesting conversation, which is admittedly Wallace’s shtick; unfortunately, this dynamic isn’t engaged beyond its surface, and the film continually interjects tone-deaf humor to offset whatever legitimate creepiness has been established.
By the time Johnny Depp strolls in as a French-Canadian detective/man-hunter, pretty much all hope is lost. He finds himself in the employ of Wallace’s friends, whom he winds up completely bewildering with tedious monologue after tedious monologue. Buried under makeup and mounds of quirk, Depp delivers the most Johnny Depp performance imaginable and exasperatingly halts the film’s momentum. Considering he and Smith have never collaborated before, you’d hope each would take Tusk as an opportunity to reinvent or reinvigorate themselves, but neither seems too interested: Depp is just short of insufferable, while Smith is a self-editor who clearly fell in love with too much of his own material, so he allows so many scenes to simply drag and meander, leaving Tusk to wilt under the crushing weight of its interminably lame third act. You’re tempted to applaud the film for its utter weirdness and its willingness to search for humor within it, but it only comes off as a heavy-handed, tone-deaf Human Centipede imitator. For a film that’s preoccupied with telling stories, Tusk sure does have trouble getting past its “hey, check out this weird shit!” attitude.
Likewise, it’s tempting to commend Smith for again stretching beyond his comfort zone, superficially-speaking at least. In terms of material, this is unlike anything he’s done before, and Tusk sometimes even exhibits a visual acumen that has rarely been his strong suit (a scene where Wallace discovers the true horror of his situation is just a great horror moment). That he resorts to his usual shtick and allows the film to careen off the rails is all the more frustrating because this is such an obviously bizarre career digression and there are few films like Tusk playing in wide release; the problem is that Smith seems all too content to merely take the less-travelled road without truly wandering down it, opting instead to engage in an undeserved, self-congratulatory victory lap after simply taking a step off the beaten path. Rent it!
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