It’s strange to think of Kevin Smith as a horror director, but he I guess he is one now. That was certainly unimaginable at the height of his run as the chairman of the View Askewniverse, when he was cranking out cult comedies at the heart of 90s culture like Clerks, Mallrats, and Dogma. It seemed like he would forever make talky comedies about pop culture junkies much like himself. Yet somehow Tusk is his second horror movie following Red State, so now he has to be thought of as a horror director as well. Granted both of his horror movies have been about talky pop culture junkies stuck in horrible situations, but it’s still been an unexpected left turn from Smith. Neither movie is as strong as his finest comedies, but both seemed to unlock skills he always lacked as a filmmaker to broaden his horizons. Red State was interesting, clever, and effective, but Tusk is definitely an improvement. So, it seems as though Smith just might have a future as a genre moviemaker if he decides to keep at it, even though it’s only a matter of time before he gets around to Clerks 3.
Tusk all started on an episode of Smodcast in which Smith had discovered a strange (and fictional) online ad from a lonely soul seeking for a companion willing to be sewn into a walrus suit. Along with his co-host Scott Mosier (and his other co-host weed), Smith spun the ad out into a potential horror movie and the final film is remarkably close to that initial hazy improv. Justin Long stars as a wiseacre jerk of a podcaster who flies up to Canada to interview the latest viral video sensation known as “The Kill Bill Kid” (think Star Wars Kid only with a katana and accidental dismemberment).
Unfortunately when Long gets there the kid has committed suicide, but determined not to waste the trip he follows an ad above a urinal out to a man in rural Canada seeking companionship. Unfortunately, that man ends up being Michael Parks, whose roles in Red State, Kill Bill, and From Dusk Till Dawn suggest he’s much worse than a friendly eccentric. He’s a madman who once lived on an island with a walrus and now wants to slowly and surgically transform Long into his new walrus best bud. Back home in California, Long’s girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) and podcasting buddy (Haley Joel Osment) get a panicked voicemail from Long and race to Canada to help. When the local authorities dismiss their concerns, they turn to a French Canadian private detective played by Johnny Depp (in an eccentrically Deppian manner) to track down their buddy. So the question is, will they find him and if so, what will be left? Place your bets. In Canada, no one can hear your scream, etc.
“Smith shoves long creepy monologues into Michael Parks’ mouth and the actor frequently makes the words more frightening than the images, making him an ideal Smith villain.”
Reduced down to the simplest logline, this is Smith’s version of Human Centipede with a walrus twist. That’s certainly true, yet the movie is also better than that. Much like Red State, Smith’s maturation as a visual filmmaker is damn impressive. This is a genuinely unsettling movie filled with disturbing images that burrow into the brain. Smith shoves long creepy monologues into Michael Parks’ mouth and the actor frequently makes the words more frightening than the images (even when those words include Jaws references), making him an ideal Smith villain. Yet, as creepy as the movie gets, it’s also far funnier than anything he’s done in years. Aside from the black humor that hangs over the walrus transformation, Long and Osment make for a vintage wise-cracking Smith team and make his long word vomits feel like natural speech. Long is also damn impressive when things get serious and he carries the movie through a journey into rubber monster land (courtesy of make-up legend Robert Kurtzman, who delivers some stellar sick work here) as well as into an unexpectedly moving finale. Then of course there is Johnny Depp, who rocks a French accent like his life depends on it and crams piles of quirk onto the picture in the third act. He almost derails the movie by coming in after an hour from such an odd angle, but Depp being Depp he’s obviously a key component to Tusk’s success and delivers one of his most lovable oddballs in years.
Now, all of that justifiable praise said, things are from perfect in Tusk. If you love or loathe Smith enough to be familiar with his usual failings, it’s easy to predict what’s wrong. No one loves Smith’s writing more than the director himself and Tusk certainly could have benefited by a round of editing on the script. Long speeches might be good on their own, but can slow the movie down to a crawl at inappropriate times. The pacing is awkward for a horror movie in a way that should have been addressed and Smith’s attempts at non-chronological storytelling never quite feel right. Smith is also a man who loves inserting in-jokes for his fans and Tusk has far too many (especially the Canuck humor). Perhaps on multiple viewings, that will play better, but on the first round the in-jokes often break tension inappropriately.
Still, these problems have always been inherent in Kevin Smith movies since the beginning and at this point, you know what you get when you sit down for one of his flicks. The good news is that Tusk works overall. It’s a deeply messed up and strange little movie that finally showcases the perverse imagery that his characters have discussed since Clerks. As always, the movie is more for the cult of Kevin Smith than outsiders and those folks will happily eat it up. It’s been nice to see Smith stretch so far out of his comfort zone in these last two movies and hopefully that will continue. They may not have been perfect, but they are at least unpredictable.
*It’s also worth noting as a final thought that Smith openly wrote, directed, and edited this movie baked out of his mind and it shows. That’s both a good thing in how free and wild the film is and a bad thing in how unfocused and rambling it can be. So, if you hate talking to people on a certain green substance you might as well stay away. If you’re part of the club, you may as well join Smith’s mindset as a viewer because that’s what he intended, for better or worse.