Tusk is a confounding movie, nestling the brilliant against the maddening and creating a film resistant to easy consumption and consideration. A day after seeing it, I still can’t decide my feelings about it — about whether I like it or not, about whether it’s an exciting rebirth for a director long gone stale, or a self-indulgent folly from a pot-soaked auteur who has, according to his own admission, “stopped giving a fuck.” In truth, it’s probably a little of both; and that is what makes it such an exciting, head-smacking, utterly indescribable experience.
Tusk was born out of a podcast Kevin Smith conducted with partner Scott Mosier on their SModcast radio show. Baked and talking about a hoax Craigslist ad that he spied online, Smith instantly put the pieces together to outline that concept for an outlandish mad scientist monster movie, a less scatological Human Centipede involving a man being turned into a walrus. A. Walrus. For most people that would be the end of it — ramblings of an intoxicated, weed-soaked mind. For Smith it was the impetus for a new phase of his career; he went out and made a movie about a man who is turned into a walrus.
Smith’s last film was Red State, which saw the director moving out of his comfort zone, trading in his patented verbose slacker comedies with their smartass scripts far surpassing the pedestrian and rudimentary shooting style Smith has oft been criticized for, for a turn into gruesome, politicized horror. The film didn’t work — despite the fact Smith seemed to finally learn how to move a camera, the film was a mess narratively, lurching between segmented storylines in its rush to heavy-handedly depict the terrors of a vicious, Westboro-like Christian cult. However, it was a noble failure, with the sense that Smith was excitingly alive as a filmmaker in a way he hadn’t been the entire decade prior, when he was churning out half-hearted variations on his crude comedies, even as the film fell apart thanks to its inconsistent tone.
Much of the same criticism of Red State can be applied to Tusk as well, though such comparisons feel pat — Tusk is not as easily dismissable as Red State. It’s a strange beast, alternately powerful and deranged, haunting and frustratingly silly. It’s indulgent in ways the work both for and against the film and dispel easy criticisms of it. I’m still sort of in awe of the mad work of misguided genius (well, maybe genius) Smith has crafted.
Tusk works best in its opening act, with Justin Long playing a prick of a successful podcaster who travels to Canada in hopes of interviewing the subject of a of a viral video, only to discover the subject has died before his arrival. Not looking to waste the trip, he discovers a bulletin board post from one Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a lonely, wheelchair bound recluse living in a remote mansion promising free rent to someone he can regale with stories of his adventures. One of which comes from the deep friendship he formed with a walrus he named Mr. Tusk after surviving a boat wreck….
It’s in these scenes that the film works best, with Long and Park bouncing off each other beautifully. Long, in his initial scenes, convinces as a jerk with a secret undercurrent of empathy, buried by a layer of materialism and hipster irony. As the movie goes on, he tends to overplay his hand, but it somehow works against the subtle, sublime performance of Michael Parks, with the two acting styles balancing each other out. And Parks is indeed amazing, crafting a spooky, convincing and darkly funny madman and instantly iconic villain. Enough good can’t be said of his performance, and Tusk, which is as verbose as any Smith film, works as a strangely disturbing chamber piece in these opening scenes. (And make no mistake — Tusk isn’t so much a terrifying horror film as a deeply fucked up black comedy.)
But then….then it happens. The cameo. Smith stops the movie cold for an odd, extended cameo from a major star that is wholly at odds with the rest of the film. I won’t reveal the actor here, though it’s an ill-kept secret on the Internet. I will say though that the role is a cartoon, and is emblematic of the film’s worst tendencies towards indulgence. It’s not a bad performance, just a misjudged one, a broad, camp vaudeville that may work in a comedy, but not here, not against other actors behaving seriously, like co-stars Genesis Rodriguez and Haley Joel Osment, who are hapless and overwhelmed by the buffoonry.
This character royally throws a wrench in the film, and reaches its nadir in a scene opposite Parks, as there is nothing really funny about what’s going on. It’s a jaw-dropping act of self-sabotage on Smith’s part, a spit in the face of everything that came before, and is so tonally at odds with everything else, it nearly destroys what Tusk has built up and what comes after. Tusk never really recovers from it, but the film rallies for an end that is at least haunting in its implications about the main character and about the relationship between man and beast.
And there’s the rub. Tusk is far too interesting to dismiss outright, a weird, fascinating detour into the director’s warped imagination, a film so unduly strange that it exerts an undeniable pull. But it’s also a bit of a wonked out lark, a film even the director doesn’t seem to take seriously, and is plagued with major flaws. It’s a film I can’t, in good conscience, assign a rating to; all I can say, based off the Twitter hashtags Smith used to promote this crazed idea, is that it deserves a hearty #WalrusMaybe?