Kevin Smith brings his dialogue-obsessed, Canuk-loving ways into the realm of body horror with the wonderful, flawed and deeply bizarre ‘Tusk’. (Note: I briefly wrote about this film last week as part of my coverage of the Toronto Film Festival, but this is an all new, more detailed review. Read on for further thoughts, including some spoilers.)
It all started as a podcast. Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier focused their weekly stoned musings on a strange (and fake) want ad from a lonely man who claimed to have spent years on an island alone with a walrus, looking for a companion who was willing to provide him with company in his autumn years while sewn into a walrus suit. Smith then expanded the ad into a story worthy of a horror movie.
‘Tusk’ sticks closely to the basics of the original plot that Smith made up in a hazy podcast, with a few new digressions. Justin Long stars as a podcaster who heads up to Canada to interview a new YouTube sensation named “The Kill Bill Kid” (it’s the “Star Wars Kid,” except he chopped off a limb with a katana), only to find that his subject has killed himself. Desperate to avoid wasting the road trip, Long follows an ad he found in a bar toilet on a whim and visits an old man seeking company.
In the middle of the Canadian woods where no one can hear you scream, Long finds Michael Parks as a wheelchair-bound eccentric who happily spins yarns about relics of his past, such as a beer taken from Hemingway and a giant walrus phallus. Eventually, Long is drugged and wakes up to find Parks in full raving madman mode, describing how he intends to slowly, surgically transform Long into his new best buddy as a walrus. Meanwhile, Long’s podcasting partner Haley Joel Osment and neglected girlfriend Genesis Rodriguez become concerned about their friend’s disappearance. After a pair of frantic voicemails, they race up to Canada to track him down. When local Canuk authorities turn out to be uncharacteristically unhelpful, they hire a French-Canadian detective played by Johnny Depp, in what was supposed to be a surprise cameo before the internet spoiled it. The trio then embark on finding their friend, while Parks and Long go “full walrus.”
It’s a strange and twisted little story, one that will seem uncharacteristic for Kevin Smith only to those who don’t pay much attention to his work. It’s not just that he already made a Michael Parks horror flick in ‘Red State‘, but his characters have been discussing these types of disgusting images and stories for years. He’s just never shown them before. (Even ‘Clerks’ climaxes with implied necrophilia.)
The tone of ‘Tusk’ is harsh, yet gleefully tongue-in-cheek. Smith indulges in plenty of gross imagery, shot with style by James Laxton and brought to life through some disgusting and rubbery effects by the legendary Robert Kurtzman. Over all this is a tone of black comedy. You’ll laugh from discomfort at Parks’ intense commitment to his performance, but you’ll also laugh at Smith’s classic rambling comedic dialogue. By the time Depp shows up in one of his typically screwball characterizations, the laughs come thick between sequences of bizarre walrus body horror. However, Smith is wise enough never to go full Raimi into splat-stick comedy. He keeps the laughs and twisted psychological scares separate for the most part, building towards an ending that’s surprisingly moving thanks to his sincerity as writer/director.
Performances are all strong, especially Parks, who was born to spit venomous monologues. Long transitions from a-hole sarcasm to utter horror with ease. The way Smith and co. commit fully to the wacko concept makes the movie work so effectively.
Of course, the problems that folks have with all Kevin Smith movies still apply and distract here. Even though ‘Tusk’ provides opportunities for visual storytelling in a way the director never delved into before, the movie is still defined by its dialogue, for better or worse. When Parks spits out wild tales and theories, that’s wonderful. When side characters wax on about emotional problems, it’s a needless distraction. Likewise, the humor can sometimes stretch to inappropriately goofy heights. There are way too many Canada jokes here for all to land, and Depp’s mugging, though welcome, derails the pacing of the third act after he takes over the movie. The film often play too inside for the sake of being inside. It has more references to Smith’s podcasts than ‘Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back’ had nods to the View Askewniverse.
Smith is a strong writer, but he’s also his own biggest fan and has issues with spiraling off into indulgent monologues that desperately need to be shortened, if not cut. That’s often even more distracting in ‘Tusk’ than in his comedies, since Smith is playing with a genre defined by suspense and careful pacing, which lopsided dialogue sequences can destroy. Still, those exact qualities that can be a problem also give ‘Tusk’ a unique and ragged tone that helps differentiate the movie from the horror norm. At the very least, there’s never been a movie quite like ‘Tusk’ before. Much like ‘Red State’, Smith’s imagination seems enlivened in a way it hasn’t been in years thanks to dabbling in genres so far from his comfort zone. Hopefully, he will continue down this path, but hopefully also learn to reign in his writing a bit more in the process.