Friday, September 19, 2014


Dir. Kevin Smith

3.5 out of 5

Kevin Smith’s films have always been vulgar, both in their inclusion of juvenile humor and in their general disinterest toward cinematic craft beyond deeply-embedded pop culture references.  In essence, Smith has been a major purveyor of cinematic hamburger for his fanbase; his films are the equivalent of a fast food comfort meal for those who share his views and tastes.  By Smith's standards, then, the horror film Tusk is practically a gourmet meal.  Undoubtedly his best movie since his 1990s heyday, Tusk marks the first time in a long time that the filmmaker has seemed truly committed to realizing one of his ideas, no matter how silly it sounds.  

Tusk concerns Wallace (Justin Long), the snarky host of a zoo crew-esque podcast devoted to scatological comedy routines and ridiculing the internet's flavors-of-the-month.  (Smith, perhaps savvier than his critics will admit, has never stopped writing what he knows.)  When Wallace travels from LA to Manitoba to prod one of these unfortunate souls for further humiliation, he instead responds to a mysterious ad written by a self-described adventurer seeking companionship and an audience for his stories.  However, Wallace quickly learns that the ad's author - an elderly ex-sailor named Howard Howe (Michael Parks) - is not the harmless eccentric he seems to be.

Have I buried the lede far enough?  Tusk is about a serial killer who turns people into walruses.  It's a semi-serious take on the thriller genre - complete with spurious "based on a true story" tagline - that gradually atomizes into a fine mist of body horror and screwball comedy with a generous whiff of camp.  And while the movie decidedly enjoys his own schlocky fragrance, it's also rather canny in the way it slowly increases tension before its inevitable reveals.  

For a while, Tusk pretends to be a psychological chamber piece, with Howe as a surprisingly well-drawn villain.  He's both an unhinged maniac and a broken human being, his criminal psyche shaped by childhood abuse and a near-fatal shipwreck that he survived thanks to the inter-species care of a walrus.  Meanwhile, Wallace not only represents Howe's worst assumptions about a cruel, unloving world; it's also Smith acknowledging the dissonance of being both a grown-up and a committed vulgarian.  Tusk sifts through many of Smith's weird fetishes and deeply-held obsessions - stupid puns, monster movies, Canadians - while feeling more focused and personal than almost any of his frustratingly insular "View Askewniverse" films.

Still, several of Smith's oft-cited weaknesses resurface in Tusk.  It's a visually inert film, save for Howe's dusty manse and the thoroughly disgusting human-walrus hybrid.  Some characters, namely Wallace's podcast co-host (Haley Joel Osment) and girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez), are stuck with weak characterizations or reams of unnatural-sounding dialogue.  And it's enamored with absurd flourishes like a loopy Quebecois detective (an incognito Johnny Depp) who overstays his onscreen welcome.  Sometimes you can sense the film trying to stifle its own giggles.  But I admire Smith's conviction in seeing this crazy idea through, never backing down from the monomania of putting so many disparate elements in one unapologetically deranged film.  Tusk may revolve around a crime against nature, but as an artistic statement it's a tantalizing glimpse of true evolution.

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