“Tusk” is revolting, but that’s entirely the point of Kevin Smith’s admirably imaginative and utterly disgusting latest feature, a twisted fairy tale that trades on gross-out gags and visual shockers instead of actual story. Although the film was originally inspired by a bit on Smith’s beloved “SModcast” podcast, the mythos of “Tusk” feels surprisingly weak and undercooked, like so much bad cinematic sushi. Smith’s podcast obsession is neatly folded into the feature, but while “Tusk” is ostensibly about using the medium to share stories, the film features some of Smith’s weakest storytelling yet.
Justin Long stars in the feature as Wallace Bryton, one half of a popular podcasting duo that dedicates their airtime to sharing creepy stories. He also happens to be a tremendous and unmitigated jerk. The basis for their “Not-See Party” podcast (these guys, they’re nothing but laughs!) is that Wallace goes out into the field to gather stories, then returns to the studio to tell best pal Teddy Craft (Haley Joel Osment) all about what he missed. Teddy never sees this stuff – that’s the “not-see” element of it all – and it’s up to Wallace to creatively and compelling share the wacky stuff he’s encountered out in the world. (Teddy’s excuse is that he hates to travel, but his real reasons are later revealed by way of an emotionally flaccid and relatively pointless twist.)
Next up for Wallace? A trip to Canada to meet a kid who burned up the Internet with a viral video – a viral video that showed him practicing his sword-wielding skills, all leading up to him chopping off his own leg. That’s the kind of stuff the Not-See dudes like. Waylaid by a weird turn with the “Kill Bill Kid,” Wallace soon finds himself stuck in Canada and in need of a new story. Perhaps the odd handwritten note promising “stories to share” can help? Sure.
Wallace may be a jerk, but he’s also weirdly trusting and kind of sweet – a series of poorly constructed flashbacks hammer home the point that Wallace used to be a good guy, before he gave in to his big-talking persona – so he doesn’t think too much of heading out to a strange house in the middle of the Canadian woods. That’s where he finds Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a salty old sailor who wants to share a lot more than stories. Parks and Long really sell “Tusk,” even if the individual tones of their performances seem to be at odds with each other. Despite the overall wacky tone and unbelievable story of “Tusk,” Long plays his role with big drama and total dedication.
Howe’s nefarious plan is eventually revealed – yes, he really does want to turn Wallace into a walrus, thanks to both total insanity and a strange affection for the beasts – and Smith’s film slowly devolves into a sicker, slicker take on “The Human Centipede.” Parks steadily ratchets his performance up, handily hitting creepy and oddly amusing notes, while Long stays straight and never gives into the film’s goofy tone. While Parks can make that work, Smith soon gives the rest of the film over to a similar tone, and the dark charms of “Tusk” crumble underneath the weight of trying to make an already insane story feel funnier and broader than it needs to be.
“Tusk” is all about stories – Wallace and Teddy’s stories, Howard’s stories, the stories of third act hero detective Guy Lapointe (Johnny Depp, who apparently needed a break from making Oscar-caliber work) – but Smith’s storytelling ability is severely lacking. Large chunks of exposition are given to flashback and long-form monologues, and Howe’s own flashbacks to his experiences with an actual walrus look cheap and feel weirdly unnecessary. Nothing flows, and the film’s inability to tell a satisfying story using basic storytelling tricks is baffling.
At least Smith’s creativity is still on full display here, and “Tusk” boasts some of the most memorable visuals the director has ever crafted. Once Howard gets down to the business of turning Wallace into a walrus (see that alliteration?), Smith goes all-in on his idea. “Tusk” is a movie about a man who turns another man into a walrus, but nothing can possibly prepare you for what that looks like. “The Human Centipede” has zilch on Smith, and the result of his wild experiment is totally disgusting, truly gross, and profoundly messed up. It has to be seen to be believed, even if it inevitably activates your gag reflex.
Smith has never undertaken a film quite like “Tusk” before – very nearly a creature feature, and definitely a horror-tinged one at that – and those elements are some of the strongest bits in the film. The filmmaker has spent his recent years moving into darker films, including 2011’s “Red State,” part horror outing, part crime feature, all unsettling, and if Smith wants to keep going deeper and weirder, he absolutely should. “Tusk” is packed with the kind of vim and vigor Smith hasn’t exhibited in quite some time, and if working within more genre-specific confines is inspiring him, that can only be a good thing for his creative output. In short, if Smith wants to slip further inside the world of horror features, he should – it fits him like a glove (read: large, disgusting suit made to look like a walrus).