In the 1990s, Kevin Smith was among several directors responsible for the resurgence of indie filmmaking. Most film buffs know the story of how Smith maxed out credit cards to finance his feature debut, Clerks. Between 1995 and 1999, Smith wrote and directed Mallrats, Chasing Amy, and Dogma – all of which achieved some level of cult status. Though the 2000s weren’t as kind, Smith didn’t bottom out until his ill-advised collaboration with Bruce Willis, Cop Out. And then Smith did something unexpected. He detoured into horror with the underappreciated Red State. Obviously, Smith enjoyed the experience because he doubled-down on his next project, the bizzaro Tusk. But in 2014 the world wasn’t ready for a movie about man who wants to turn another man into a walrus. Mixed reviews and audience apathy doomed the project. But was Tusk really that bad? Or was it a guilty pleasure in the making?
Wallace Bryton is the outrageous host of The Not-See Party podcast, specializing in mocking the subjects of viral videos. But when he heads to Canada for his next viral target, Wallace finds his subject dead and no new podcast episode. However, Wallace’s trip takes a turn when he responds to an ad in bar bathroom promising a bed and interesting stores. what he finds is the eccentric Howard Howe who tells the story of a walrus who rescued him from a shipwreck. Unfortunately for Wallace, Howard wants to do more than share stories. Still haunted by the loss of his ‘friend’, Mr Tusk, Howard plans to operate on Wallace to make his very own ‘walrus’.
Tusk Walks a Fine Tightrope Between Disturbing and Laughable Schlock
Whether you like Tusk or not, you have to admire Smith’s willingness to commit to the project. Yes, the premise is odd and the execution is no less bizarre. As a result, Tusk always feels like a mixed bag. When Wallace meets the eccentric Howard Howe their initial exchange should elicit some suspense and tension. After all, any horror fan knows what’s coming. But Smith never quite gets there in part because his subject is so ludicrous. And most of Tusk straddles this fine line between disturbing and silly.
Not surprisingly, there’s also something inherently silly about the whole thing. Nevertheless, the imagery is still often unnerving.
Occasionally, Tusk’s body horror manages to strike an uneasy chord. Our first look at Wallace missing a leg and his final transformation into ‘Mr Tusk’ are indeed shocking. Not surprisingly, there’s also something inherently silly about the whole thing. Nevertheless, the imagery is still often unnerving. Moreover, Michael Parks’ commitment to the role adds a bit of menace into moments that can’t be described as anything less than surreal. Arguably, the icing on the cake is Smith’s unironic use of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk’ during his climatic showdown. Like the rest of the movie, Tusk’s climax will likely prompt mixed reactions. It’s pathetic, sad, and laughable all at the same time.
Tusk Detours Too Often To a Painfully Long, Unfunny Side Trip
As obnoxious podcaster ‘Wallace Bryton’, Justin Long turns in a surprisingly good ‘against type’ performance. While his character is wholly unlikable, that’s also the point of the movie. Whether it’s a good storytelling choice can’t be blamed on Long. Perhaps Smith had something to say about our viral social media culture. If so, it’s subtext lost in his strange tale. To his credit, Long even manages to evoke some sympathy from his pathetic transformation. Yet it’s Michael Parks, in all his scene chewing glory, who rescues Tusk. Similar to his Red State role, Parks fully commits to the absurdity of the story. It’s a credit to his talent that he sells the character.
But Smith’s odd decision to spend so much time on these characters and Johnny Depp’s ‘Guy LaPointe’ drags the movie to a halt.
Where it becomes obvious that Smith based Tusk off an episode of his SModcast podcast is with its padded side story. Neither Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense) nor Genesis Rodriquez are bad in their roles. Rodriquez is unremarkable at worst, while Osment comes off well as ‘the buddy’. But Smith’s odd decision to spend so much time on these characters and Johnny Depp’s ‘Guy LaPointe’ drags the movie to a halt. The scenes are long, awkward, and painfully unfunny. Smith’s strength lies in pop culture-laden banter, not Tarantino-esque dialogue. Regardless of his talent, Depp can’t sell the character or the ‘humour’. Any time ‘Guy LaPointe’ is on screen, Tusk goes from strangely watchable to painfully awkward.
In spite of its flaws, Tusk has a cult-movie buried somewhere under its walrus hide. What holds Smith’s movie back is that it’s actually two movies in one. On one hand, Tusk is a strange, somewhat disturbing, body horror tale that’s often uncomfortably laughable. Too bad Smith indulges some of his worst tendencies with a needlessly long and unfunny side story. Less Johnny Depp and more Michael Parks would have gone a long way towards improving Tusk. Ultimately, Tusk is an oddity that still packs enough ‘Midnight Movie’ vibes to someday find a niche audience.