**1/2 (out of 5)
September 19, 2014
Michael Parks as HOWARD HOWE
Justin Long as WALLACE BRYTON
Genesis Rodriguez as ALLY LEON
Haley Joel Osment as TEDDY CRAFT
Johnny Depp as GUY LAPOINTE
Directed by: Kevin Smith
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
Years ago, I used to be a huge Kevin Smith fan. Then I grew up.
It’s odd because the maverick writer/director best known for breaking into Hollywood with his fringe film “Clerks” is pretty much the same age (and weight) as I am. However, as I grew into my 40s, as a parent of three boys, I matured from his 90s-era brand of dick and fart joke humor. (Though I will admit that I do like a good dick and fart joke now and then.)
Smith’s last ten years have been a rocky time as a filmmaker. He tried to break out of his mold with “Jersey Girl,” but that was not much of a success and left him gun-shy to try something new. Then “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” failed to click with an audience, and “Cop Out” was an unmitigated disaster, sending him spiraling into childish Twitter rants, marijuana-fueled podcasts and a Cher-like string of promises to retire.
He got some footing back with “Red State,” which was a commendable film in that it was (for the most part) different than anything he had done. Unfortunately, that movie was marred by a bait-and-switch Sundance auction and a successful-but-soft distribution deal which saw the film four-walled in his stage show. While I wasn’t a huge fan of “Red State,” mainly for the weak victim characters (who amounted to nothing more than unfunny versions of Jay from the infamous Jay and Silent Bob era) and an overlong middle speech by Michael Parks, I was glad to see Smith stretch a bit.
He stretches again with “Tusk,” and by doing so delivers 70 percent of a powerful body horror movie reminiscent of Cronenberg in the 1970s. It’s too bad he snatches a bad movie from the grasp of a good movie in the final act.
“Tusk” tells the story of a foul-mouthed podcaster named Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), who travels to Canada to interview a wheelchair-bound man (Michael Parks) who promises to tell amazing stories about his time at sea. However, Wallace soon realizes he’s in a trap when he is drugged and forced to endure horrific surgeries to bring about this man’s twisted dream of reuniting him with a walrus that saved him in his youth.
There are some truly great things going on for the lion’s share of “Tusk.” The cinematography has some real art to it, which has always been hit or miss in Smith’s films. However, here cinematographer James Laxton offers a rich color palate and a fantastic use of light and shadow. Even more powerful is the musical score by Christopher Drake, featuring eerie drones that support the horror on screen.
There are some problems in the film at the beginning, though. The biggest sin Smith commits is that the character of Wallace is such an ass that it is almost impossible to feel much sympathy for him. This is par for the course with Smith, who usually delivers characters that are ultimately terrible people. The only thing that saves them in his other films are their over-the-top presence in a wacky film.
A likeable protagonist in a horror film is a must, and Wallace simply is not very likeable, so even though he is going through unbelievable trauma, it’s hard to sympathize. Imagine if Marilyn Burns’ character from the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was a shrill bitch or if Jamie Lee Curtis’s character in the original “Halloween” was a foul-mouthed jerk. Sure, Smith is bucking convention, but he’s just not very good at it.
Similarly, Smith fumbles with the characters back home who eventually have to go to Canada to find him. These amount to Wallace’s girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez), who is about as deep as her “Clerks” counterpart Caitlin Bree, as well as the podcasting co-host Teddy (Haley Joel Osment), who is just another facet of Smith’s personality to balance out the caustic Wallace.
Still, “Tusk” works, and it works quite well for the first hour or so of the film.
Then it falls apart. And it doesn’t just stumble a bit. In the final half hour, “Tusk” suffers an epic implosion into a firestorm of incompetence and confusion.
I have never listened to Smith’s podcast episode “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” upon which the film was based, but I have listened to the show before and know the dynamic well. Smith and Mosier were likely baked out of their brains and came up with a bizarre and farcical storyline. However, when Smith turned this into a film, he actually stumbled upon a pretty terrifying piece.
Unfortunately, he clung to the ridiculous finale from the podcast, resulting in a jarring tone change that tramples on any vestige of real quality horror. The last act of the film turns into a bizarre roasting of Canadian culture featuring everything from hockey obsession to a beret-wearing detective from Quebec (played well but to ludicrous effect by Johnny Depp) on the hunt for a serial killer.
It is rare to see a film that starts off so well, then crumbles to the point of idiocy and rage-inducing foolishness. It’s a real shame that Smith has such little confidence in his own abilities that he cannot escape his own cage of stereotypes that he lives in. He starts off with something quite amazing with “Tusk,” a film that could have redefined his career and led him down a new, fascinating career path. Unfortunately, he takes an epic metaphorical dump on the film, the cinematic equivalent of Michael Myers burping and farting through the climax of “Halloween.”