Coo Coo Ca-Fucking-Choo!!! – Tusk (2014/dir. Kevin Smith/USA)

It says some things about this internet age that we live in where the world is inspired by such things as pranks, off-handed remarks about Gumtree ads and podcasts to the point that they make Tusk a reality. A movie with such a blatantly insane premise as Tusk‘s is made solely with the idea of the audience that already pledges to see it and the hope that their pledge is more than a promise.

I can’t outright claim that the things this fact says, though, are great things.

Nor can I absolutely say that they are bad things entirely. Tusk takes on the monumental task of using this ridiculous idea for a mostly horror film. This is the second time director Kevin Smith, who is largely well-known for his didactic layman comedies about sex and life, has tried to make a horror film (the first being his 2011 Phelps tribute Red State). This is, however, the first time Smith seems to have actively taken on a less consistent tone outright with the horror plot and this is surprisingly part of what makes Tusk a little more fun than Red State‘s disappointment.

As weird as that sounds a compliment, I’d first have to explain just what the hell Tusk is about and why these shifts in tones initially help it out (until later on when they hinder it). For those not in the know, Tusk follows a comedian/podcast host Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) who travels to Canada in order to interview for his show one of the many poor souls that he viciously mocks online for everyone to witness and join him. Unfortunately, he arrives at the home of the unfortunate kid to find out that the boy had commit suicide. Desperate for a story to have for the next show, Bryton becomes intrigued by an ad put out by a Mr. Howard Howe (Michael Parks) and, after arriving at Howe’s large estate, begins to question Howe about his life before passing out. Upon waking, he discovers one of his legs amputated and Howe making very unbelievable tales about why Bryton is in the state that he is in and why he will be unable to contact anyone else. But it doesn’t take long for Howe to be outright candid about his intentions – to transform Bryton into a walrus, using a suit Howe constructed himself and torturous conditioning to shift Bryton’s mindset.

Now, once you finish resetting your jaw, I may as well elaborate on the point of matter of this movie. Kevin Smith, the man we all know to suck at retiring by this point (well after stating that the still unproduced Hit Somebody was going to be his final film, Smith went and announced Clerks III, a horror film about Santa Claus, and now Tusk is apparently the first in a proposed trilogy taking place all in Canada), has a podcast. I can’t speak much on its quality as I am not a subscriber (he is, however, one of the best spoken figures I can name in contemporary culture, despite his lackluster films, so it’s probably really good). But in a particular episode of SMODcast, they came across a Gumtree ad verbatim to the one Bryton finds in the picture and immediately pitch this idea of a Hammer Horror Film akin to the plot this movie we see before us. It was only produced after Smith started a twitter poll to ask if this movie should be made (it should be noted the Gumtree ad was eventually discovered to have been a prank).

So, like it or not, it’s a movie the public literally asked for and here’s our heaping serving of it. Still, compared to some of Smith’s more recent works, it’s actually not half bad, though it’s not half good either. The point is that it’s sort of a technical improvement of Smith’s craft. And while it may be cheating, it at some point involves how you approach the movie…

Myself, for instance, I had entered with the assumption that if it was going to allow us to go “full walrus”, meaning if we were to accept the ridiculous premise, it was going to pick a tone this time [one of the bigger problems with Red State other than how boring it got quick was how it was eager to shift from horror to… backyard action (? – cause it looks like shit some hick would shoot in his backyard) seldom a heads-up]. Ideally this tone would be the irreverence we fucking loved Kevin Smith for in his View Askewniverse and his talks and he’d stick with it.

Instead, I was surprised how it didn’t deny how stupid the plot was, but actively pursued a horror mood. This possibly surpasses Clerks II as Smith’s most well-directed film yet. Smith, who confesses himself to be more of a writer than a director, actually seems to have some amount of understanding of how to visually communicate the elements of urgency, of isolation, of darkness and of the cost of violence (there’s a very curious scene that half-works where Howe recounts how he lived his childhood in misery under the infamous real-life Duplessis scheme while he sews very unsanitary flesh to flesh) while still admitting itself as a story that is close to deserving of self-deprecation. It’s pretty charming and creepy at the same time, especially when Smith is able to – for the first half of the film – very patiently allow the tensions to rise between Howe and Bryton before the whole point of Bryton’s kidnapping is even laid out, in long wide takes with just two figures in an empty room – one in total suffering – waiting for the question to be asked.

And a lot of this effect goes very much to Long and Parks. Parks is not half as charismatic at length as he usually is in his bit roles (and there’s a flashback scene featuring him that, while the dialogue has some of the best non-Coen brothers screwball comedy I’ve heard, Parks is just one note short of being a piece of furniture for the scene) but he does hold as much weight as he can and gets to eventually let out a lot of energy once Howe’s true motivations are revealed. At his final scene, he loses all his power as a screen presence, but easy come easy go.

Long doesn’t really have much he needs to do other than be dislikable pre-surgery and be completely animalistic post-surgery, when we get to witness some really really “lolwut” special effects that provides a pretty solid balance between comic and disturbing. He does all of his tasks well and it’s not a surprise, since he’s spent a lot of his career being the male Scream Queen of some pretty decent horror movies – Jeepers CreepersDrag Me to HellDodgeball

However, after this long draw out to a climax, it starts to fizzle ever so slightly and stray a bit from the path we feel promised to. First, it introduces a love triangle involving Bryton, his girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) and his co-host Teddy (Haley Joel Osment). First, Rodriguez is easily the most lackluster performance in the film behind Teddy and a lot of that comes from how she dedicates so much to a part that really doesn’t matter in the long run (in fact, I’d honestly say it undercuts the fact that Bryton gets what he deserves by having his girlfriend so sympathetic to him and using her as an emotional proxy). Osment is not much in the thick of this either. Second, it devotes too much time to this plot that doesn’t matter that I’d rather see spent on how Bryton loses his mind (the film never really goes over the process – just one minute screams and then the next he’s now barking instead). In particular, there is a long one-shot monologue with teary eyes about how Bryton is such a cheating jerk and how Ally still loves him that is just droll and boring and distracting and THIS IS WHERE I ROLL MY EYES IN A MOVIE ABOUT A MAN TURNING INTO A WALRUS!!! WHEN THEY ADD THIS AFTER-SCHOOL SPECIAL MELODRAMA, GOD FUCKING DAMN! It just skewers the movie’s momentum badly, like a train off the track.

But the movie then re-arranges itself thankfully for a few more moments and gets back to the point of rising up the character action between Howe and Bryton. It’s doing a decent job of it again before we get introduced to a new character…

Now, I’m going to be totally honest. Johnny Depp’s performance as Guy LaPointe, a slider-chomping Quebecois investigator who has devoted his life to tracking down Howe, seems exactly what we missed out of him before. Not repeating beats of Tim Burton-esque whimsy, no bug-eyed Gore Verbinski chatter, just a character that Depp finally sinks into and totally becomes near-unrecognizable in. I haven’t seen such a performance out of him since Captain Jack Sparrow and he’s a remarkable bit of fun that actually makes the movie from his introduction onward bearable. It even impresses me that he’s game for some of the demanding pauses Smith’s comic style requires, when I’m used to Depp letting loose when he’s this into a role.

It doesn’t change the fact that his presence totally takes the movie from tongue-in-cheek facsimile of horror to outright laugh-out-loud join in on the fun comedy. And the movie suffers for it, particularly when it has to return to how Howe and Bryton are doing and especially when the climax of the movie involves another absurd plot point that we just aren’t ready anymore to approach it as involved as we were previously when the Howe/Long dynamic was first presented. So, by the end, what little goodwill the story has gained dies out and unfortunately it’s partly on LaPointe’s presence. But he tries to make up for it and clean up after himself and that’s… admirable.

Anyway, these tonal shifts don’t just fall on the performances. Smith himself edited the film and attempted a very obviously “auteur” style of presenting the story, but it’s honestly frustrating to witness. We have to revisit entire scenes we already went through to just to catch moments that Smith teasingly did not include the first time it played, flashback moments that almost feel like they’re trying to pad this story that I’m guessing he felt doesn’t earn its runtime just on Long and Parks’ dynamic alone. And most of these flashbacks+1 involve more of the godalmightystupid relationships between Bryton, Ally and Teddy that the fucking length of them made me want to set the theater I was in on fucking fire (it was empty since I caught a 12:30 am showing, so nobody would have been hurt). As much as Smith’s verbose and engaging style of dialogue on paper really sparks up and adds character and efficiency, his editing style really doesn’t – it just adds more and more crap to sift through to get the real Walrus of the story.

In the end, it has its flourishes that are good (Howe’s dialogue in particular impressed with how well-learned and educated and waxed Kevin Smith can make his scripts, but it still doesn’t make up for this misfire of mood he perpetrated) and its flounders that should not have been (ugh shut up Ally!), but just how they stacked the bad over the good really rubs me the wrong way, especially considering the potential it showed within the first few moments as a decent delivery of a crazy horror film. It feels just as haphazard and half-done as the Walrus we see Long end up as, a grandiose fuck-up that might leave you disgusted, but almost immediately forgettable. Just as Long is not really a walrus when he’s in a walrus, how Smith dressed up Tusk doesn’t make it an immediately good film, but oh how it could have been.

How it could have been…

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