I have a long-standing history with Kevin Smith, dating back to high school when I first saw the erroneously named “Jersey Trilogy.” When Red State came out in 2011, I was intrigued to see what Smith could do with both the horror genre and a parody of the always-awful Westboro Baptist Church. I was…underwhelmed, to the point where sharing the same room as the man whose films I could quote by heart was undesirable.
I was following Tusk with fairly mild curiosity until I saw the trailer (see below), and then found my curiosity going from mild to full-tilt. When we received the invite for an advance screening in NYC, I took my first-ever paid personal day, hopped a train, and went to see if the idol of my teen years still had it in him.
Director: Kevin Smith
Release Date: September 19, 2014
Tusk is the story of Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), co-host of popular podcast The Not-See Party. Wallace goes all over North America, meeting all sorts of kooks and crazies, then returns home to tell his best friend and co-host Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) all about it, as Teddy is afraid to fly. After traveling from LA to the Great White North to interview his latest subject (The Kill Bill Kid, a very obvious homage to The Star Wars Kid) turns out to be a bust, he spots a very intriguing letter pinned up on a corkboard above the urinals at a bar. This leads him to the lavish estate of Howard Howe (Michael Parks), an eccentric man who has many a story to tell. From there, things get…weird, Wallace goes missing, and it’s up to Teddy, Wallace’s girlfriend Ally (Génesis Rodríguez), and a French Canadian ex-cop by the name of Guy Lapointe to find Wallace.
The story behind Tusk is awesome. Kevin Smith and his Smodcast co-host Scott Mosier spent a large portion of episode 259 of their podcast talking about a Gumtree ad about a man opening his home to a person for lodging at the low, low price of free, provided the person spend two hours a day dressed as a walrus and coming up with a film idea based on it. Smith asked his Twitter followers to tweet “#WalrusYes” if they wanted to see this become a real thing or “#WalrusNo” if they didn’t. The positive response was overwhelming, and so, Tusk was born. Incidentally, it was revealed that the Gumtree ad was fake, but Smith went on to make the poster, Chris Parkinson, an associate producer for the film!
Surprising none of you, I’m sure, Tusk is not high art. No, quite the opposite. It is vulgar, it is mean, and it is bloody. Smith said it best himself: “I wanted to right what I felt was the only wrong of Red State by scripting something with no religious or sexual politics that could grow up to be a weird little movie and not an indie film call-to-arms or a frustrated self-distribution manifesto. I just wanted to showcase Michael Parks in a fucked up story, where he could recite some Lewis Carroll and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to some poor motherfucker sewn into a realistic walrus costume.” Tusk is like Human Centipede, but good/entertaining/worthwhile.
The cast, while small, is a delight. Michael Parks steals the show as the antagonist Howard Howe right up until we meet Johnny Depp’s Guy Lapointe, who is quite possibly the most entertaining character of Depp’s since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ Raoul Duke. Justin Long plays the perfect American: brash, vulgar, and loud, perfect for a podcaster of his character’s stature. Haley Joel Osment is perfectly serviceable as Long’s best pal and Génesis Rodríguez is the girlfriend you wish you had. Smith and Depp’s daughters, Harley Quinn and Lily-Rose respectively, appear as the Colleens, bored high school convenience store workers with a distaste for Americans (who will take the lead roles in the second installment of the True North trilogy, Yoga Hosers). Smith’s wife Jennifer cameos as a waitress at a burger joint and Harley Morenstein from Epic Meal Time is a perfectly Canadian border agent. It’s an interesting concoction of talent, bereft of the Smith regulars, but it works wonderfully.
The dialogue in this script is trademark Kevin Smith. It’s vulgar, plenty of dick and fart jokes, and rife with pop culture. Long’s character, especially, is the source of all three things. One particular reference both made me laugh out loud and appreciate the inside joke of it all: as the disinterested clerks at the convenience store barely acknowledge his existence while he’s asking for directions en route to meet Parks’ character, he sarcastically asks the duo how Degrassi High is (both Smith and I love Degrassi, but only one of us appeared in a multi-episode arc). The look on the girls’ faces in response is absolutely perfect. The America vs. Canada jokes are bountiful in this film, surprising no one. Of course, the America vs. Canada jokes don’t stop there. They are bountiful in this film, surprising no one. Towards the end, as Guy Lapointe readies his American compatriots for the big rescue, Teddy says he doesn’t like guns, and Lapointe looks at him in disbelief and asks “What kind of American are you?” Despite the horrific core of the film, there’s plenty of levity to get you through it.
My only real complaint about the film is a story element they add about halfway through the film, a rather unnecessary element to the rescue subplot. I don’t want to give anything away, and we already knew by that point that Wallace is an asshole. That being said, Génesis Rodríguez got to stretch her dramatic legs in one of the related scenes, and I look forward to seeing more from her.
Assorted thoughts: The cinematography was great, and there were a couple shots where I was really impressed. Christopher Drake’s score was ominous, and at times even managed to incorporate a vaguely nautical theme, which I thought was a fantastic touch. The main set, Howe’s house, was dimly lit and imposing, which worked great for the tension, especially early on. The Not-See Party studio looked very believable as a place these guys would record, and both the studio and Wallace’s house feature lots of comic homage posters for their podcast, featuring him and Teddy as various superheroes from famous covers, which I thought was a very nice touch (and reminded me of Bluntman and Chronic).
Finally, there’s Howe’s walrus suit, the end result of some blessedly off-screen surgery. Don’t look it up or spoil it for yourself, because the mid-movie reveal is ghastly, shocking, and really delivers on the promise the movie makes to you leading up to it. That being said, the more you see of post-op Wallace, the less ghastly and more silly he looks, but it never stops being a horrific sight to behold, all the way up to a rather satisfying climax.
Whenever I described it to people after the screening, I described it as the Kevin Smith horror movie I always wanted. The characters are incredible (here’s to hoping Depp’s Lapointe will be the Jay and Silent Bob of the True North trilogy), the dialogue is perfectly Smithian, and the execution works perfectly. Smith makes use of flashbacks to fill in the story and develop the characters, and one particular flashback expands on the Wallace and the store clerks scene (and just so happens to feature the aforementioned Degrassi reference). This is Kevin Smith at his finest; making a movie he wanted to make, based on an idea he came up with one of his life-long best friends, which came from a weird post from the internet. Like I said above, it is not high art, but I sincerely doubt it was supposed to be. I loved this movie, and I cannot wait to see what other delights the True North trilogy has in store for us hapless moviegoers.
#WalrusYes? More like #WalrusYesYesYES.
Nick Valdez: Tusk is an interesting stab at something unique. It’s a film I can honestly say it’s not like anything else I’ve seen this year, but that goes both ways. An inconsistent tone throughout dispels any significant scenes of “true horror” the film proclaims itself as. It takes on such a dark tone at times, it undermines the eventual humor Smith tries to pull out of the anguish. This inconsistency goes on to demean the eventual reveal of the “walrus” with a costume so bad, I couldn’t decipher whether or not that scene was intentionally bad for jokes or just a victim of poor choices.
Genesis Rodriguez is great (she gets one adlib closeup scene she shot in one take that really displays her talents), Haley Joel Osment is underplayed (and is only there to add another character to Smith’s planned Canadian trilogy), Justin Long is wonderfully reflective of Smith’s crafted persona, and Johnny Depp’s role is so bloated it derails the film entirely. There’s one scene between Depp and Parks that seems like it’s only there to pad the film before its rushed conclusion, and it’s drawn out for so long Tusk flatlines. In order to fully enjoy the film, you’ll have to ignore the last ten minutes. 63 – Decent