While I have never been a massive fan of Kevin Smith’s films, I have immense respect for him as a person. His candor and insight into his creative process is absolutely beyond reproach, and I genuinely believe that he is completely invested into every film he makes (besides Cop Out of course, but that lead to some great stories.) In fact, it was especially fascinating that this film was born out of one of Smith’s podcasts. So going into Tusk, I was definitely optimistic. After all, I really enjoyed Smith’s previous foray into horror, ‘Red State,’ which was a biting and brutal satire of the pain religious organizations can cause, and…well how can you not be intrigued by a film with this premise?
We center on a podcaster named Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), who with his co-host Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) make a living out of brutalizing idiots on the internet. When Wallace goes up to Canada to interview a teenage boy who cut his leg off with a sword, he is dismayed to find that the boy committed suicide before he could get the interview. Now stuck in the great white north, he comes across an add in the bathroom that promises a place to stay, and many interesting stories. Desperate, Wallace travels up to the house of Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a wheelchair bound man who claims to have been on a ship with Earnest Hemingway, and later on lost at sea, his only companion being a Walrus. Right around the end of that story, Long notices the sleeping toxin in his tea, and passes out. You see, Howe has a bit of a lightbulb going on. In order to recreate his blubbery friend, he will sow Wallace into a homemade Walrus suit.
For it’s first two acts, Tusk really works. For one thing, the cheap look of Red State is gone. This is a beautiful, atmospheric looking film. It contorts the friendly, welcoming hills of Canada into a savage deathtrap, with Howe’s massive leviathan of a house as the centerpiece, eerie and omnipresent. Beyond that, the writing and the characters are just fantastic. Justin Long gives his best performance in a very long time here, tapping into Wallace’s unfiltered immaturity (which is very much a reflection of Smith himself) and sheer horror at his situation with equal ease. Parks is even better, relishing in the lunacy of this madman. As he delivers several extended monologues chronicling his life, we start to understand (as much as possible) what lead him to this, and although he truly is insane, there is a method to his madness. Before Long is drugged, there is an extended sequence that is just the two of them talking, and honestly, I could have watched that for the rest of the run time. Smith’s screenwriting here is as sharp as I’ve ever seen it, with beautifully punchy and poetic dialogue carrying us through.
Then…we get to the payoff.
The moment Long actually finds himself contorted in the Walrus suit, the movie completely falls apart. What was once a twisted fable with comedy organically thrown in to highlight character flaws, ultimately turns into a straight out goofy comedy, and the transition gave me whiplash. Firstly, while it’s certainly a creative design, the Walrus suit becomes silly really quickly, so it’s hard to really invest in Wallace’s de-humanization for laughs or scares. It pretty much turns into Michael Parks playing with a big rubber blob. Also, every so often we cut back to Haley Joel Osment, and Genesis Rodriguez (as Wallace’s girlfriend) as they look for him, and they enlist the help…of good old Johnny Depp. Now, when Depp was cast in this movie, I was really excited to see him perhaps play a more down to earth role (in the context of this insane story), because frankly, I’m tired of his insistence on playing exclusively goofy characters.
The moment I laid eyes on this character, I knew I would hate it.
Johnny Depp plays a long haired, cross eyes, French (I think) detective who has been tracking Howe for years, and it’s the most annoying character he’s ever played (which is quite an achievement). His first scene, which includes an embarrassing flashback where Depp and Parks (who is playing stupid) try to out mug each other for what feels like about an hour and a half, goes on for a blisteringly long time, and it’s just a comedy skit. The entire vibe of the film is just yanked out like a bad wire, and it never finds it’s footing ever again, even when the walrus stuff is working.
There’s certainly some stuff to like in Tusk. In fact, I would argue that the set up for everything is pretty damn brilliant. However, Kevin Smith can’t seem to restrain himself, and despite making a great looking movie, can’t keep a hold on the tone. It’s so frustrating, because he really almost had it here, and I think with one or two more passes at the script, this could have turned out to be his magnum opus. As it stands though, Tusk is an interesting experiment, just don’t expect anything to be scared besides your grasp on what you’re doing with your life.