I think it would be fair to call Kevin Smith a controversial figure among movie fans. On the one hand, Smith helped define modern independent cinema by way of Clerks back in the ’90s. Mallrats and Chasing Amy have both kept impressive followings as well, and I personally hold Dogma in high regard as a movie that helped shape my feelings about religion and spirituality. Of course, those examples are among Kevin Smith’s earlier work. More recently, his output has been stuff like Jersey Girl, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Cop Out, and Red State,Â all of which (to put it charitably) failed to find a passionate audience.
Since the turn of the century, it’s been easy to think that Smith has been content to rest on his laurels, or perhaps unable to leave them. He seems much more comfortable acting as a kind of geek ambassador, talking about all manner of nerdy interests on TV, podcasts, and various social media. Unfortunately, Smith appears to spend a lot more time running his mouth than he does getting films made and distributed. Between that, his declining output, and his umpteen promises to retire from filmmaking altogether, it’s getting increasingly hard to take Smith seriously as a filmmaker. To put it more simply, Smith seems content to treat the title of “filmmaker” as a bragging right, rather than a job.
Yet here we are with Tusk, the first of a planned trilogy set to take place in the Great White North. Though critics overall haven’t been thrilled (the Tomatometer is at 39 percent as of this writing), the more geek-inclined reviews I’ve read appear to be split right down the middle. Some love it, some hate it, yet all agree that it’s something refreshingly unique and unforgettable.
It also bears mentioning that the film has grossed less than a million dollars in its opening weekend. Clearly, if I’m ever going to weigh in on this, I’d better do it now. So let’s take a look.
This film tells the story of Wallace Bryton, played with a bitchin’ mustache by Justin Long. He hosts a wildly popular podcast series called “The Not-See Party” (better believe that’s a running gag), in which Wallace sifts through the internet to find the weirdest stories out there, then travels to interview the subject in person. Usually to make fun of them for the enjoyment of a worldwide audience. Yeah, we see on quite a few occasions that the guy’s kind of a dick.
Anyway, Wallace travels to Manitoba to interview some guy who accidentally dismembered himself and posted the video on YouTube. And Wallace arrives just after the subject commits suicide. Desperate to find replacement material on short notice, Wallace hears tell of an old sailor with plenty of stories to tell. He goes to visit Howard Howe (Michael Parks, here playing yet another charismatic nutjob for Smith afterÂ Red State), who promptly drugs the guy. Howard then subjects Wallace to a variety of mutilations and surgeries with the goal of turning him into a walrus.
Yes, that’s the premise for the film. A mad scientist turns some unsuspecting guy into a walrus.
See, Howard believesÂ that man is so savage and cruel that it would be far better to be an animal. Why a walrus specifically? Well, Howard was once marooned on an arctic island with a walrus as his only company. The walrus was far more noble and a more caring friend than any person Howard ever knew (so he claims), and Howard wants to spend his waning years with similar company.
At this point, I’d like to address a few select words that this movie opens with: “Based on actual events.” See, during one of their SModcast recordings (specifically, SModcast #259, titled “The Walrus and the Carpenter”), Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier read an article about some guy who was offering free room and board to anyone who would agree to dress up in an elaborate walrus costume. Smith and Mosier brainstormed the movie from there, and enough fans encouraged them to actually make the damn film. And that’s when a fan came forward to say that he made the whole article up, and he wanted to be involved in making the picture. So really, it’s more like “Inspired by a prank pulled by one of our fans who’s now one of our associate producers.”
Getting back to the film itself, there’s the matter of Justin Long. On the one hand, he does a fantastic job. The guy plays a transformation from man to walrus, and that’s a tough gig if ever I heard of one. Yet Long also takes every possible opportunity to try and inject some likeability into the character, so we can sympathize with him and feel sorry for his predicament. This is one of those rare times when it backfires on the movie horribly.
The character of Wallace is a problematic one, for reasons that Smith and Long both have a part in. You see, as I’ve stated before, Wallace is sort of a dick. We’re shown this on multiple occasions. In fact, the film often flashes back to show Wallace before he went to Canada, just to remind us how much of a dick he was. This implies we’re supposed to think that Wallace deserves to have something nasty happen to him, which admittedly would provide a very nice comfort zone between us and all the body horror going on. The trade-off, however, is thatÂ it also leaves us without a character to relate to, which crucially damages the “horror” aspect.
Yet at the same time, Wallace isn’t completely irredeemable. In fact, he’s just likeable enough that watching him go through all this torture didn’t hold any catharsis or fun for me. You know, like it might have if he was a shitheel all the way down. The end result is a character so muddled that I didn’t really know how to react to his transformation, other than a general feeling of “what the fuck?”
Moreover, there’s theÂ thematic angle to consider. If this movie was about a goodly human gettingÂ turned into an animal, that would be one thing. If it was about some boorish party animal gettingÂ an exterior to match his personality, that would be something else. But no, Wallace is somewhere in between a human and a metaphorical animal: He’s a douchebag. Sorry, but the transformation from douchebag to animal doesn’t serve as a very potent commentary on the beastly nature of humanity.
This is emblematic of the film as a whole, by the way. The entireÂ movie seems at odds with itself, unsure of whether it’s a comedy or a horror. A key example comes when we finally see Wallace in his final walrus form. The reveal is shown by way of a quick zoom out, a camera move that lends itself much more to comedy than any kind of “horror” atmosphere. Also, the walrus makeup itself looks laughably fake in a grotesque kind of way, clearly more rubber than flesh. It’s not really scary, it’s sure as hell not funny, it’s just incredibly weird.
Another fine example is Guy LaPointe, played by… well, he’s credited as “Guy LaPointe,” but it’s actually Johnny Depp. Yes,Â that Johnny Depp. He appears in the third act as a bumbling French detective, complete with beret and accordion music in the background. Also, Depp’s performance looks like an unflattering imitation of John Malkovich. Again, it isn’t remotely scary and it barely qualifies as “funny,” but it is unquestionably weird.
(Side note: From what I understand, Guy LaPointe will be a recurring character in this planned trilogy. It seems that Smith and Depp became friends after they met through their daughters, who once attended school together. Incidentally, Lily-Rose Melody Depp and Harley Quinn Smith both appear in the film as vapid convenience store clerks, and both will reportedly play central roles in the next “True North Trilogy” film.)
Oh, and of course the film brings in the classic Fleetwood Mac song, doing so in a way that doesn’t even remotely fit with the tone of the climax. But then, even the climax doesn’t fit the tone of the climax. I won’t say much more for fear of going into spoilers, but suffice to say that it didn’t elicit fear or tension so much as the now-familiar confusion of “what the fuck am I looking at?” and putting the song on top of that didn’t help.
Moving on, we also have Teddy (Haley Joel Osment, all growed up) and Ally (Genesis Rodriguez). They are respectively Wallace’s co-host/best friend and girlfriend, so we have someone to help us keep an eye on what’s going on outside the walrus zoo. Unfortunately, these turn out to be unremarkable roles that could’ve been played by just about anyone, so Osment and Rodriguez are sadly wasted here.
The same cannot be said for Michael Parks, who seems to be having the time of his life in this picture. Parks fares better than anyone else in this cast because (aside from one scene with Depp that drags on for far too long) he never even tries to worry about whether he’s playing comedy or horror. Parks just digs deep and commits to Sparkle Motion, delivering an unhinged type of crazy that perfectly meshes with the batshit premise. And he’s more than charismatic to sell it, which helps a lot.
As for miscellaneous notes, it should come as no surprise that there’s a whole ton of Canadian humor here. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t, but all of it takes up too muchÂ screen time. Yet that’s emblematic of a greater problem this film has, which is pacing. Everything before the transformation is a slog and everything afterwards is padding, because the film has absolutely nothing else going for it except the central premise of a guy getting turned into a walrus.
I don’t mean to sound like this isÂ a bad movie, it’s just a weird one. The film takes risks in the attempt to do something original, and I respect that. Also, I understand the appeal in seeing something that’s truly one-of-a-kind. Still, if I had to give the film a straight up-or-down, yes-or-no vote, I’d end up voting “no.” The movie treats such an outlandish premise as an end in itself, even though a premise is only a starting point. Such a refreshingly unique idea should be used to create something far more interesting than a few half-baked scares, some awkward jokes, and some ill-developed themes. Kevin Smith succeeded in filming wacky and disturbing moments the like of which no one has ever seen, but he couldn’tÂ make the case for why these moments ever needed to be filmed. As such, it’s my honest opinion thatÂ the movie did not earn the right to exist.
ThoughÂ Tusk is a fascinating and noble cinematic experiment in many ways, it’s nonetheless a failed one. The premise might have really shined if it was played for horror or comedy, but Smith tries to balance both approaches and proves incapable of doing so. The result is a movie that’s awkward and weird from start to finish, with Justin Long and Michael Parks doing their best to keep the movie afloat. I really do want to commend the movie for diving into the unusual with such abandon, but theÂ premise is defeated by wonky pacing and a self-contradictory tone. Though for what it’s worth, I’m very glad that Smith had the courage to go outside of his (and everyone else’s) comfort zones, and I wish him better luck with his next great experiment.
I can see the movie appealing to fans of “so bad it’s good” cinema and anyone who likes to be shocked for the sake of it. And of course, any die-hard fans of Kevin Smith will already have seen it. Everyone else, however, can safely pass it by.