I’ve made no secret of my dislike for Kevin Smith’s previous film Red State. As I’ve said before, the only way I could think of to open my review of it at the time was “Holy s**t this sucks.” It’s kind of gotten overshadowed as a meaningful benchmark of bad by Jack & Jill, which came out the same year, but its incredible awfulness remains somewhat impressive.
But honestly, I must have been incredibly optimistic if I thought Red State was a bad direction for Kevin Smith. Red State, bless its heart, was trying to be something (Emperor only knows what). Tusk on the other hand can’t even get enough ambition to be more than the movie equivalent of a practical joke.
The movie’s problems begin right at the conceptual level. Based on an apocryphal story Smith read on one of his podcasts, the story is devoted to Wallace (Justin Long), a podcaster who apparently used to be a nice guy before his humor got nasty. There’s probably some meta humor in there, since the director is a guy who used to make good natured comedies and is now making torture porn, but I’m not sure if that’s the intent, or if Smith is incapable of writing a lead character who isn’t him.
Anyway, his podcast is based around going and interviewing weird and stupid people, at which point Wallace will talk about it to his partner (no I don’t see what the appeal is supposed to be either). After circumstances prevent him from interviewing the person he’d intended to, he decides to go interview a man named Howard Howe (Michael Parks) who promises free board and a lifetime of interesting stories. Surprising absolutely no one, Howe turns out to be serial killer who intends to surgically transform Wallace into a walrus, due to his affection for a walrus that once saved his life.
“But Elessar” I hear you cry, “That sounds like a mind boggling stupid premise for a horror movie.” Well yes, I would respond, but that might not matter so much under other circumstances. The Fly‘s premise is basically spending 2 hours watching a guy slowly transform into a fly monster, and it’s considered a classic of the genre. The problem is…well mostly that Kevin Smith isn’t 1/100th the director Cronenberg is, but also that The Fly took it’s characters and world seriously. Which is where Tusk‘s biggest issue comes in.
As my friends can attest, I’ve mentioned that I, from the trailers, had trouble discerning how I was supposed to react to Tusk. As it turns out, the movie has the same issue: the tone lurches sickeningly back and forth between horror and comedy from scene to scene. It can’t decide if it’s a genuine attempt at body horror or a Slither-esque parody.
As a result we have genuinely unnerving scenes like the horror of Wallace’s gradual transformation, or his first attempt at a swim, which are completely undercut by penis jokes and the decision to score a walrus fight to Tusk by Fleetwood Mac (because of course they do). It doesn’t help that Wallace is such a completely unlikable asshole that I can’t even begin to care what happens to him (Hostel made this mistake too).
What’s even more frustrating about it is that there are parts that work. Wallace may be an asshole, but Long is very committed to the performance and when he finally stops talking his character becomes a lot more compelling. Smith also appears to be improving as a director, and certain chunks of the movie taking place in Howe’s mansion are well shot even if the reveal of Wallace in the walrus suit is overlit and the suit itself is…imperfect. I’m having trouble putting my finger on why though.
Oh and Parks. Parks is amazing in this movie. His character isn’t very good; he consists primarily of mishmash of motivations, backstory and twists, his dialogue is far too flowery for a human to actual speak and doesn’t gel with the rest of the script. But Parks makes it work, and I mean that literally. Michael Parks, though sheer force of will and talent, wrestles every scene he’s in to the ground and beats it into submission until it works. I don’t know if he could have kept up dragging the movie along on his own like that, but for a while he seemed ready to do it. In fact, at the halfway point, when I’d spent most of the movie with Parks and Long, I was prepared to declare this movie to be okay. Not great, but okay.
And then Johnny Depp shows up. And he fucking kills the movie.
I cannot overstate that. I really cannot. Every bit of momentum the movie has grinds to a halt, every bit of goodwill from Parks and Long and a couple of incredibly unnerving scenes goes straight out the goddamn window when he walks on with makeup and an accent that make The Lone Ranger look conservative. Depp’s performance is so perfectly wrong it’s actually shocking to think that this was the same man who was in Ed Wood and Finding Neverland. Every second of it is off, not one moment of it works. He’s schticky and lazy and just…just awful. Just terrible. It may be the worst performance of his career and even if he was the only major issue, it would still probably be enough to land Tusk on my worst of the year list.
Unfortunately, it’s not the only issue, just emblematic of the movie as a whole. There’s no restraint in anything. The script is overwritten to the point of meaninglessness, Howe’s backstory feels like an attempt to mash 3 or 4 backstories together, and the is so stuffed with useless scenes that go on forever that it winds up feeling overlong, even if it barely clocks in at 100 minutes.
These problems just keep compounding on each other until Depp shows up and the movie just collapses under its own weight. The end of the movie is so incompetently staged and hilariously unearned, but also so completely sincerely presented that I almost felt bad for having to restrain my laughter. The fact that the podcast that inspired this movie plays over the end credits is actually kind of a brilliant metatextual joke: the filmmakers are completing their prank by giving us the middle finger for having sat through it.
There’s a moment in the book John Dies at the End (unlike this movie, a mashup of horror and comedy that manages to be both funny and terrifying) where the lead character says, of the titular John, that he’s the type of person who gets an idea while drunk at 3AM, but then follows through when he’s sober. That’s what Tusk feels like, the result of someone following through on an idea they had at some ungodly hour while drunk out of their mind. It clearly wants to be a weird midnight movie, ala Troll 2 or The Room but it lacks the authenticity to even reach that dubious height. Avoid this movie like the plague.
Elessar is a 24 year old cinephile and he still can’t figure out what’s wrong with the Walrus suit. Too clean? Or is it just the scenes with it are overlit?
– Michael Parks is a revelation
– Long is pretty committed to his performance
– some of the scenes in the mansion are really well shot
– the walrus suit is hard to take seriously
– tone is all over the map and the script is on the weak side
– I really cannot overstate how terrible Johnny Depp is in this movie