To be honest, I’m glad Kevin Smith hasn’t retired from filmmaking (or at least, not yet). I’ve enjoyed all his movies except for “Cop Out,” which I’m sure he doesn’t care for either. When it comes to “Red State,” I found it to be a major leap out of Smith’s safety zone which resulted in his best directorial effort yet. Now we have “Tusk,” his second visit to the horror genre and one of the more original and bizarre movies to come out in a long time. It has its moments of comedy, but it is mostly a serious film dealing with one American’s journey into Canada and of the horrific fate awaiting him there.
Justin Long stars as Wallace Bryton, one of the hosts of a popular podcast called “The Not-See Party” (get it?), and he and his good friend Teddy Craft (Haley Joel Osment) live to have fun at the expense of others. Their latest target is the “Kill Bill Kid” who accidentally sliced off one of his legs with a sword while attempting to perform one of that movie’s famous moves, and Wallace decides he and Teddy should travel to Canada to interview him. Teddy, however, doesn’t like to fly, so Wallace goes over there all by his lonesome.
When Wallace gets to Canada, he discovers the “Kill Bill Kid” has died which leaves him without an interview. Despondent, he stops by a bar where he discovers a handbill from a man who claims to have a lifetime of stories to tell, and he is offering free room and board to those interested in hearing him out. Wallace jumps at the chance to listen to what he has to say and travels out to the man’s house which, like in any other horror movie, is located in the middle of nowhere. It is there he meets Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a wheelchair-bound old man who regales Wallace with tales of his life at sea. One of those tales involves a ship he was on which sank and led to him meeting a walrus who saved him from drowning. Howard came to name the walrus Mr. Tusk, and he still considers Mr. Tusk to be the best companion he ever had.
As Howard continues to talk, Wallace begins to lose consciousness as, like those horny teenagers in “Red State,” he has been drugged and eventually passes out. When Wallace wakes up, he finds himself in the hands of a man intent on turning him into a walrus. We all know what curiosity did to the cat, but Wallace looks to be heading towards a fate far worse than death here.
I don’t think it’s any secret of what happens to Wallace in “Tusk,” and perhaps it is best for those who haven’t seen the movie yet to stop reading this review now. The inspiration for this movie came from “SModcast,” a weekly podcast Smith does with Scott Mosier. On one episode they talked about an ad from a British website where a man was offering free room and board for anyone willing to dress up in a walrus suit and make walrus noises while he throws them fish and crabs to eat. We get to hear some of this episode during “Tusk’s” end credits, and Smith and Mosier are laughing their asses off as they discuss how the movie would play out. Seriously, it got to where I was kind of amazed at how the story evolved from the podcast to this finished movie.
Like “Red State,” “Tusk” is not the kind of horror movie designed to make you jump out of your seat every five minutes. Instead, it is more about people confronted with a terrifying situation which proves to be way beyond their control, and just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do. Robert Kurtzman was the effects artist, so that should give you an idea of just how horrific Wallace’s transformation is. It may not quite equal what Jeff Goldblum went through in “The Fly,” but it does provide the audience with a very unsettling visual.
Long has a tricky role to play as Wallace is a very obnoxious dude who almost doesn’t yet realize just how rude he is to others. His interactions with Canadian residents provide “Tusk” with some of its most amusing moments, and that’s especially the case when he meets a border agent played by Harley Morenstein who doesn’t hesitate to explain the differences between the United States and Canada. You can’t help but feel bad for Wallace even though he’s a bit of a jerk. I like to think this gave Long an interesting arc to play as he goes from being an egotistical prick to a helpless victim who is not exactly deserving of the fate which awaits him.
We do get a few flashbacks which show Wallace hanging out with his girlfriend Allison (Genesis Rodriguez) who is starting to accuse him of being a sellout, and she admits to missing the old Wallace as a result. Wallace, however, is more smitten with the new version of himself and doesn’t want to go back to the way he was. To say that this comes back to haunt Wallace is the understatement of the year.
Rodriguez, I have to say, has some really strong close-ups here where she holds the audience at bay with her emotional conflicts. As much as she loves Wallace, she is not blind to his misdeeds which eventually come to reflect her own. Rodriguez previously appeared in “Identity Thief” and “Casa de mi Padre,” and she looks almost completely unrecognizable here. Gloria Swanson may have told Mr. DeMille in “Sunset Boulevard” that she was ready for her close-up, but she wasn’t as ready as Rodriguez is here.
It’s also great to see Osment here whom we all remember from “The Sixth Sense.” He’s grown up now (deal with it) and gives a multilayered performance here as Teddy. Explaining why is tough because it would be giving away one too many things, but it shows that Osment has entered into an adult acting career with confidence, and I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.
But let’s be honest, the real reason to see “Tusk” is Michael Parks. His performance as Howard Howe is truly a master class in acting, and he takes what could have been an utterly ridiculous character and turns him into a pitiful and truly haunted soul, not to mention an utterly terrifying one. Seeing him dive right into this role with such a giddy exuberance and spout off classic lines of literature is invigorating, and it quickly reminded me of how annoyed I was that he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his work in “Red State.”
“Tusk” does, however, fall apart a bit during the second half when we get introduced to a French-Canadian detective named Guy LaPointe. His appearance comes out of nowhere, and it leads to a cameo which goes on for far too long. Now you may or may not know the identity of the actor playing LaPointe, but I’m not going to reveal it here because it honestly took me a minute or two to realize who it was. There is something to be said for an actor who disappears into their part, and this one succeeded in doing so thanks to a nice nose job. Still, the character feels out of place.
It’s best to go into “Tusk” with an open mind, and this especially goes for Kevin Smith fans. Some may say he is traveling through familiar territory here, but I don’t think he is. True, it does have a couple of convenience store clerks (both of whom will be appearing in Smith’s next movie, “Yoga Hosers”) and there are a lot of in-jokes throughout, but here he is exploring the possibility of a man’s humanity surviving a cruel and life altering event.
I also got to say, looking at this movie’s title, that I kept wondering if the Fleetwood Mac song “Tusk” would be featured here. Is it? Well, see the movie to find out.
* * * out of * * * *