Tusk: Kevin Smith’s Metamorphosis

| December 31, 2014

Tusk is the first movie of its kind. Starting as a discussion piece on Kevin Smith’s podcast Smodcast, the writer/director/podcaster spun a hypothetical yarn after reading an internet ad that captured his imagination. This ad was from a person seeking a roommate, but on the condition that this roommate don a makeshift walrus costume once a day, and, whilst in the costume, make only walrus sounds and have a diet of raw seafood. And so, as one could expect, Smith’s yarn was that of a Human Centipede-style horror movie. You can hear Smith’s enthusiasm grow throughout the podcast, and by the end of it, it’s downright intoxicating. What’s pleasing to note is that the film that exists as a result of that very podcast is just as intoxicating. Smith somehow captured the seemingly flippant fire of a single moment and turned it into a finished product that feels just as passionate as the whim of the impetus by which it spawned.

Tusk stars Justin Long as a podcaster named Wallace who travels around and interviews interesting people and then tells his co-host Teddy (played by Haley Joel Osment) on their Not-See Party podcast (a name that causes more trouble than it’s worth). He goes to Canada for a gig, which ends up falling apart, and so he seeks out a reason to account for the expense of his plane ticket. Where he ends up is a variation on the ad Smith read, with Howard Howe (played by Michael Parks) entrapping Wallace into going along with his vicious, sinister game against his will. How this ordeal plays out is equal parts unsettling, gob-smacking, and anticipatory, filled with narrative surprises and emotional underpinnings that range from imminent terror to loss of lifestyle, and beyond. There’s a personal undercurrent to the film that makes it genuinely powerful, despite the (presumed) whimsical theatrics of the premise. It actually is a story about a person going through something…abnormal.

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Wallace’s girlfriend Ally (played by Genesis Rodriguez) has been pining more and more for the “old Wallace” she used to know, not the one who’s let success go to his head at the expense of others. This part of the story mostly plays out in flashbacks that are used to provide even more thematic context to the horror scenes, and Smith does a good job of strengthening the narrative with this technique (and I don’t need to point out the obvious parallel of “new Wallace” becoming “new Walrus”, but it works structurally). Eventually, Teddy and Ally find their way to Canada in search of the missing Wallace, and they’re led to a strange detective named Guy LaPointe (played by Johnny Depp), who’s been on the trail of Howard Howe for a while. I’ll leave the synopsis at that, for fear of revealing anymore spoilers.

Parks, Depp, and Long all do some of the most unusual work of their career, if not the most unusual. Parks and Depp are both chameleon-like performers, but Long’s performance is arguably the bravest of the bunch. And he pulls it off: he’s funny, schmucky, haunted, and haunting. And Genesis Rodriguez turns a strong performance as Ally, a character trapped by many of the same circumstances and feelings as where Wallace ends up (though a far less extreme version). Parks gets to put on a full show here, playing the sinister psychopath with tremendous conviction, and, with the nature of the character, essentially—and beguilingly—pulling off three parts in one. And it’s the essence of embodiment, real Daniel Day-Lewis stuff. Michael Parks is one of the best actors around, and Smith (with the help of Quentin Tarantino, of course) is cementing Parks’s legacy as an offbeat, once-in-a-lifetime performer who will now be admired and studied for generations. I’m looking forward to seeing them work together again.

Much has been said of Depp’s appearance in the film—the jury appears to be divided on this one—but I find him to be of the many delightfully weird aspects of the movie. His inclusion and performance just ups the strange factor to an area that you either admire and stay with, or tune out and dismiss due to the extent of unusual ingredients the film is open to at all times. And it was nice seeing Osment again after all these years, he does just fine as an adult.

At the risk of over-thinking the movie, Tusk is Smith’s Metamorphosis—both artistically and literally. The whole angle of the film is that being able to express complicated thoughts and feelings—to cry and to tell stories—are what separates us from the animals. Kevin Smith is a talker. Renowned for the gift of gab, he’s been known to unload a three-hour (for real) answer on his attentive audience after one question in a Q&A session. It’s what he’s made his living on—even his biggest detractors admit to his skill in the dialogue department. So what would be the worst thing for a gifted gabber to lose? That very gift, I would imagine. Not to mention Smith is (rather infamously) overweight—which he’s referred to as his Achilles heel, driving him to excel in other facets to compensate for his less than stellar physique. I am not implying he has the body of a walrus, but his physical limitations are such that he could very well be expressing something along those lines: being trapped in an unwanted body, with no way to communicate. It’s not borderline Kafka-esque, it is Kafka. And there’s a running comment on freewill and self-image that’s surprisingly thoughtful throughout the film.

If you’re a Kevin Smith fan, one of the most pleasing aspects of Tusk will be how it’s essentially a compendium of Smith’s Smodcast run. Where instead of Smith running through his View Askew reference book (ala Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back), he pulls directly from the podcasting world he’s spent seven years creating to decorate the film with in-joke details. It’s another film made for the fans, but this time, it’s for those who’ve been fans of the second half of his career specifically. So it functions as a sort of summation of the Smodcast years of Smith’s life, making it extra personal and reflecting Smith’s transition from New Jersey slacker with a comic book store making comedies, to California stoner with a podcasting empire making horror movies.

So few critics have come to this film’s defense, calling it dumb, lazy, pointless, juvenile, disgusting, etc. Sure, Smith has some juvenile tendencies, but all funny people do. In this film, that tendency mostly adds a degree of honesty and a sense of the limitless: this movie can go anywhere it chooses, and it does. If Smith were properly understood, this film would be perceived as the work of a lovable rascal instead of that of an obnoxious stoner. Smith’s visual sense of storytelling continues to be grounded in comic book-style framing and lighting, much to the advantage of this story, and there is an awful lot of parallel thematic storytelling in this film, making it all feel meticulously deliberate in a way I feel it isn’t given credit for. It’s an acquired taste, for sure, but the twisty thinking persistent throughout is able to connect if you let it. Many will be waiting to call “bullshit” on it, which is an unfortunate predisposition for viewers to have, but that’s the risk Smith took in going through with this project. Smith definitely took it seriously enough to result in a worthwhile end product, but audiences and critics alike may not be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt due to prejudicial thinking. The movie is readymade to be ridiculed because it simply shouldn’t work as well as it actually does. It’s not a “fun bad movie”. It’s not necessarily an “art house film”. It’s not quite a horror movie, not quite a comedy, it’s the only movie quite like it. I’ve seen the film three times now, and of all the films from this year so far that I’ve seen more than once, much to my surprise, Tusk held up better after the second viewing than the rest. It’s not dumb, it’s not lazy, and it’s not pointless—it’s a weird movie made even weirder by virtue of the fact that it avoided being those very things. And by weird, I mean good.

The Blu-ray/DVD special features include the very podcast that got the whole thing started, commentary by Smith, deleted scenes, and more.

About the Author:

Jared studied Film at Eastern Michigan University, the movie store and movie theater he used to work at, on his own, and with friends. He is also a playwright, screenwriter, director, and short story writer. His work has previously appeared on two other websites: The Man in the Movie Hat and The Hive, and his feature film 'Footlights' can be found on YouTube (for free!). He lives, works, reads, walks his dog, and watches sports in Detroit.

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