“Tusk” Movie Review

     If writer/director Kevin Smith set out to do something different with his new film “Tusk”, he certainly succeeded and them some.  The idea for the film was born during an episode of his weekly podcast, “SModcast”, in which he and buddy Scott Mosier have a laugh over an ad placed by someone wanting to rent out a room in their house for free with the stipulation that the person be willing to dress up as a walrus for a couple hours a day.  This, of course, led to Smith’s already deviant mind to shift into overdrive and ultimately became the basis for his “Tusk” script.  The resulting film is so utterly creepy, so hysterically oddball, that to convey my opinions about it on paper proves to be a task in which the result could never really do justice to what Smith has captured on screen.  Put another way, Smith has somehow woven the shock value of the grotesque with the comedy of a sight gag, constructing something that delves into new heights of absurdity and yet you can’t take your eyes of it. 

     The film immediately abandons typical horror conventions and instead introduces the lead character as more of an anti-hero than a true good guy.  Wallace (Justin Long), is one half of a weekly podcast that relies on interviewing strange and interesting people.  Wallace is, generally speaking, an arrogant self absorbed individual who is caught up in his own success, never realizing he is alienating the very people who got him into his position in the first place.  In the film’s initial scenes, we see the podcast in session as Wallace and his co-host, Teddy (Haley Joel Osment), are having a laugh over a viral video called “The Kill Bill Kid” which features a young teen filming himself swinging a samurai sword and accidentally severing off his leg.  Wallace has made arrangements to fly to Canada and meet the kid himself and the two hosts couldn’t be more giddy about it.

     When the interview falls through, Wallace finds himself stuck in Canada, weeping about the expensive plane fare and leaving with nothing to show for it.  While at a local watering hole, he comes across an ad in which a man boasts of his desire to tell someone his stories of adventure.  Wallace sees an opportunity and contacts the man, who navigates him two hours outside of town to his home.  Howard Howe (Michael Parks) seems strange, and yet inviting enough that Wallace, whose level confidence likely has him thinking he’s invincible, is comfortable sitting down with him for an interview.  After all, Howe is a wheelchair bound man who appears to be in his mid 70s.  How could he possibly be a threat? 

     The two sit down as Howe begins to tell Wallace of his various exploits at sea, including his encounter with a young Ernest Hemingway.  Wallace, with his over the top porn mustache and smug demeanor, never seems to take anything Howe is saying seriously and chooses instead to make demeaning jokes about his host’s stories, particularly when the subject matter shifts to when Howe was once saved by a Walrus.  Maybe this should’ve been a clue Wallace picked up on, but he soon realizes it too late when he passes out from the drugged tea Howe has served him. 

     At this point, the film is still generally what you would expect from a Kevin Smith film.  The dialogue and banter between the characters is similar to what we’ve seen in many of his other films such as “Clerks”and “Chasing Amy” and the tone of the film seems to be moving closer to his first horror offering, “Red State”, in which you believe something dreadful is coming, but you really aren’t sure what yet.  Through flashback, we know that Wallace’s relationship with his girlfriend, Ally (Genesis Rodriguez), is beginning to sour and his buddy Teddy seems more than willing to take his place.  When Wallace awakens in a wheelchair, he is told by Howe that he passed out after being bitten by a poisonous spider.  Howe then makes every excuse as to why the doctor who treated him is not available or that he broke his phone when he fell and therefore can’t call home.  From that scene, it seems as though Smith decided to shift into high gear as if he just couldn’t wait to reveal his villain’s true intentions. 

     After a revealing dinner table scene, the film delves deep into the bizarre.  Howe really does attempt to surgically turn Wallace into a Walrus and wants to use him to recreate the companionship he had with a real Walrus decades before.  Long time horror film makeup guru Robert Kurtzman has really outdone himself here, as he has created one of the most disturbing on screen visuals I have ever seen.  Unlike classic horror films such as “Alien” or “Jaws” that created terror by showing the creature as little as possible, Smith parades his creation front and center for the entire second half of the film and it remains uncomfortably impactful every second it is on screen.  It is during these sequences that Smith really nails several truly horrifying moments and as an audience we start to believe no one, even Wallace, really deserves what he is being forced to endure. 

     If there’s a complaint about the film, it’s in the third act when one character single handedly sabotages the devilish tone Smith had established and turns the narrative into an unintelligible bore.  Even though Wallace is on the downslide with his girlfriend, Ally and Teddy set out to look for him and meet up with a retired Canadian cop who claims to have been on Howe’s trail for years.  The character, Guy Lapointe, is played by an A-lister covered in makeup, making him nearly unrecognizable.  His cliched French-Canadian accent masks anything he may be trying to articulate and to watch him on screen seemed to be more of a chore than any form of entertainment.  Smith may have been going for originality or, perhaps, he just wanted to continue with the films obvious and continual poking at Canadians, but ultimately the character and every scene he is in falls flat. 

     Whereas many have assumed “Tusk” is Kevin Smith’s version of “The Human Centipede”, I would argue it is a combination of other much more notable horror films.  It is in some ways similar to  “Misery”  with a hint of “Hannibal”, but ultimately it is rooted in the very podcast that Smith records every Tuesday.  The characters are molded from his own persona as well as his co-host, Scott Mosier, and will be making appearances in two more films that take place in the same parallel universe as “Tusk”.  This is exactly the type of original filmmaking I frequently speak about and the kind of daring storytelling Hollywood needs to see more of.  The execution isn’t perfect and the tone seems to change in virtually every scene, but “Tusk” has a quality about it that is sure to have you talking long after you leave the theater.  GRADE: C+