Written and directed by Kevin Smith
Starring Justin Long, Michael Parks, Genesis Rodriguez, Haley Joel Osment, Johnny Depp
When podcaster Wallace Bryton goes missing in the backwoods of Manitoba while interviewing a mysterious seafarer named Howard Howe, his best friend Teddy and girlfriend Allison team with an ex-cop to look for him.
As a director, Kevin Smith has been very up and down in terms of quality output. Ignoring his personal life of retiring and then un-retiring or his crusade against critics for their lack of “appreciation” for Cop Out, Smith is a man who doesn’t have the most flawless track record when it comes to movies. At times he can hit the highs of Clerks or Chasing Amy, but he can also hit the lows of Jersey Girl or the aforementioned Cop Out. But since leaving “the studio system” and going back to his indie roots, he seems to found a passion for filmmaking once again. The action-horror Red State was a fun little romp with a sterling central performance from Michael Parks and Smith has found a niche for himself at this level of filmmaking. The next step on that road is Tusk, available now on Blu-Ray and DVD (as well as on demand), the first part of a Canadian-based horror trilogy.
As a brief bit of history (as it is sort of needed to explain the story), Smith came up with the idea for Tusk on an episode of his podcast show with former producing partner Scott Mosier after seeing a news story about an old man who is offering a room to rent free of charge so long as the occupant pretends to be a walrus once a month. The advert, posted on Gumtree here in the UK, was actually a prank by Chris Parkinson (who is listed as a producer on Tusk), but Smith and Mosier – believing it to be real – began talking about a movie based on this story. Following support from his large fanbase, Smith put the project into motion and thus Tusk was born.
The movie follows a very similar story, but with a Kevin Smith twist. Being that the show was born out of a podcast, our “hero” is Wallace (Justin Long), a podcaster from New Jersey, who presents the rude and lewd Not-See Party (Nazi Party, geddit?) with his best friend Teddy (Haley Joel Osment). One of their features sees Wallace travelling around the country and meeting weird and interesting people to report back to Teddy so they can both have a laugh and make fun of them. When his lead about a kid who sliced his leg off by accident with a sword (a spoof of the infamous “Star Wars Kid”), he stumbles upon an advert from an old man named Howard (Michael Parks) with stories to tell, who lives out in the middle of nowhere. Sensing there is a story, Wallace travels out to see him only to find that Howard is more sinister than he let on – and he has disturbing intentions based on a previous relationship he had with a walrus named “Mr. Tusk”.
When screened at festivals, Tusk was wildly received by critics who gave it a standing ovation and praised Smith for his “return to form”. So positive was the praise that it even changed Smith’s minds on critics and how they help little movies like this get found. But was Tusk really worth all the praise?
In many ways, Tusk feels like the sort of movie that you would have discovered through tape trading back during the Draconian Days of the BBFC and their Video Nasties ruling. While many look back on that as a glorious time for the horror genre, the majority of films that were banned by the government weren’t particularly good. Tusk isn’t a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but there is a certain charm to it and there are slightly more positives than there are negatives.
Firstly, Michael Parks once again proves that he is one of the most under-utilised older actors in the industry today. His turn as Abin Cooper in Red State was a revelation (pardon the pun) and a lot of that quiet sinister edge is brought over to Howard in Tusk. His first scene with Wallace is grippingly brilliant as he regales stories of having drinks with Ernest Hemingway, and is chilling without being forced. Smith’s script and direction creates a sense of unease that doesn’t require a score or jump scares to achieve, which is refreshing in a genre that often relies on this far too much, and Parks performance only elevates this further. Justin Long (as well as Osment) really sell this douchebag podcasting idiot duo with a lacsidicycle performance that speaks volumes about the “millennials” level of entitlement, feeling they are invincible against anything simply because podcast advertisers pay their rent. Unfortunately, the script does take some cheap routes to make us not like Wallace, which feels pretty superfluous, and there are moments with his girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez, there to solely fill up the numbers) that are included just to fill the runtime – which actually could have been 20-30 minutes shorter. Parks is the star of the show, but credit should go to Long for diving into this role (again, no pun intended) and giving it his all.
The actual idea behind Tusk is also one of its strongest points and Smith takes great joy in laying out this gruesome and bizarre scenario that sounds like it couldn’t possibly be a real movie. There are several moments in Tusk where you will find yourself almost laughing at the madness on screen, questing to yourself if what you are watching really came from the mind of a sane human being. And because it’s played seriously, its madness is intensified. This isn’t like a WolfCop or MegaFoot where the movie asks you to laugh along with the director. Instead Smith presents images that are intended to be unsettling and forces you to watch. Granted, the wackiness of the plot will be too much for some who won’t appreciate its oddball nature, but that was never Smith’s target audience.
But, for all of its positives, there are a lot of negatives to Tusk. The first of which is that it suffers from the same problems as Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno (set for release next year) in that it can’t balance its desire to be a horror and its want to be a comedy. The two run similar parallels as Tusk will go from subtle scenes of abject horror to jokes about masturbation and sex because the director thinks it’s funny. Tusk’s immaturity really lets it down and it seems as though Smith struggles to write without smut or foul language, even when penning a movie that doesn’t require it. This is not a prudish view as the jokes don’t serve the story and therefore are unneeded. There is a scene between Wallace and Ally where we learn the backstory of his podcast and change of character since “becoming famous” (some of which is eerily similar to Smith’s own career trajection) that is marred by Smith’s inability to not add in childish humour about Wallace ejaculating on Ally because she won’t let him climax. The scene would have played the same without these jokes – that weren’t funny – and therefore are unnecessary to the script.
The need for comedy also comes in the form of a bizarre performance from Jonny Depp (credited as his character name Guy Lapointe), which is perhaps the bottom of the barrel of Depp’s “wacky acting”. Pulling all of the worst from his dreadful turns as Willy Wonka, The Mad Hatter, Tonto and latter day Pirates of the Caribbean movies, his turn as French-Canadian bounty hunter Lapointe is dreadfully unfunny and thoroughly irritating. A sequence between him and Parks in a flashback is so disgustingly unnecessary, boring and annoying that it forces you to zone out and refuse to listen. Both men are tremendous actors, but the stupidly laugh-free scene just creates a dull break in the narrative that ruins all flow. Sad to note then that Guy Lapointe will most likely appear in all three movies of the trilogy, having already been confirmed for Yoga Hosers.
Finally, perhaps the movie’s biggest issue lays in its pacing, which starts off slow and then escalates at a moments notice. Smith clearly wanted to spend some time with Wallace and Howard post-walrus operation, but the movie would have had more impact if that reveal had been saved for the end. Once you’ve seen it, all intrigue is gone and the more we get to look at it, the less effect the grotesque image has. It’s a shame as the effect work by Robert Kurtzman (Evil Dead 2, Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child, From Dusk Till Dawn) is actually very good and he has somehow managed to take Smith’s insane vision and turn it into a reality – but the horror is seen too much. If you take a movie like David Cronenberg’s The Fly for example, the final transformation of Brundlefly is so terrifying and memorable because it was saved for the finale. Had Tusk spent more time with Wallace and Howard’s torturer/victim dynamic, it could have been a much better movie as this is where some of Smith’s best work in the film lays.
In the pantheon of Smith’s work, Tusk will fall somewhere in the middle for most viewers. It’s not as bad as Cop Out, but it is no where near the quality of Chasing Amy or even Red State. Michael Park is phenominal and the actual horror elements work really well, but the immature comedy and turn-the-movie-off performance from Johnny Depp really bring the movie down a few pegs. Tusk is perhaps a better concept than a movie, but that isn’t to say it isn’t worth a viewing.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Luke Owen is the Deputy Editor of Flickering Myth and the host of the Flickering Myth Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @LukeWritesStuff.