Written by Matt Haviland
Plot: Famous podcaster Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) visits Canada for an interview and becomes held captive by once-seafaring madman Howard Howe (Michael Parks) who plans to surgically transform him. Wallace leaves frightened voicemail messages for his podcast co-host, Teddy Craft (Haley Joel Osment), and his girlfriend, Ally (Genesis Rodriguez), saying he’s somewhere in Manitoba and they need to rescue him. Their search begins while Howard Howe’s plans spring into action…
Listening to the podcast from June 2013 where director Kevin Smith and producer Scott Mosier apparently came up with the concept for Tusk (then entitled The Walrus and the Carpenter, which illustrates the film more accurately) made me think that everything was going to be played for laughs. Their conversation was originally about an online roommate request specifying that the applicant wear a walrus suit for two hours a day in return for rent-free boarding (“No talking when you’re the walrus!”). The podcasters were laughing throughout the discussion, so I thought, “Okay, there’s going to be some madman who sews a walrus costume onto Justin Long and hits him when he speaks English, and it’s going to be ‘funny.’” Kevin Smith writes great dialogue, and both Clerks movies were fantastic. Combine that with the good half of the mixed reviews and there might have been some excitement for the film. However, the podcast walrus jokes grew tiring after about five minutes. A full movie where Justin Long barks like a walrus while Michael Parks hits him that you’re supposed to be laughing at sounded exhausting. Going to the theater with lower expectations, I probably would have just turned around.
Describing Tusk as a comedy, however, is like describing Scary Movie as horror. Everything begins like a Kevin Smith comedy, with famous podcaster Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) joking around with booming co-host Teddy Craft (Haley Joel Osment) about a viral video called “The Kill Bill Kid,” where a kid cuts his leg off by accident, on their famous podcast. The comic tone lasts about fifteen minutes. After Wallace travels to Canada to interview the Kill Bill Kid and finds him deceased, he discovers a roommate request on a bathroom wall. We’re treated to one last lighthearted conversation between Wallace and Howard Howe (Kill Bill’s own Michael Parks), the seabattered gentleman offering room, board, and interesting stories, before we’re thrown into revulsion, despair, and walrus noises that form the soundtrack to what feels like Kevin Smith soberly showing us our deepest emotional wounds. When Smith and Mosier’s podcasted laughter roars over the end credits as they describe what would become Tusk’s horrifying climax, they sound about as heartless as Wallace and Craft do laughing about a boy’s severed leg.
Tusk is a great horror film that fulfills the potential behind the otherwise useless-seeming subgenre of “the prolonged gross-out.” Without going into detail (to preserve the surprise for those who enter the movie with only the vaguest walrus-flavored foreknowledge), let’s say that Wallace Bryton becomes the subject of Howard Howe’s transformational experiment. Stephen King once wrote (in Danse Macabre, his master class on horror) that horror films can provide catharsis by evoking deep emotions attributed to mundane things. The Night of the Living Dead confronts audiences about the fear of death and decay, and I Was a Teenage Werewolf, the horrors of hormones. Kevin Smith’s film evokes thunderous feelings about coming to terms with seemingly permanent damage, many of the shots so horrifying that looking at them feels like braving our own deepest shame, and looking away feels like failing ourselves.
Kevin Smith’s conversation-heavy style augments the story perfectly without overpowering it. Wallace’s first conversation with Howe circles around an ornately decorated room as they deliver the exposition. Wallace punctuate his description of a scary drive through the woods with a horror-movie strike of Howe’s piano keys, and then comes back to sit down with the former seafarer, where we slowly notice Wallace’s behavior slacken. There’s a lot of dialogue, but it’s rich with character and physical cues and keeps the plot moving along. Howe’s frequent monologues about his tormented life are full of pathos and poetry and are delivered by Michael Parks while he advances his scheme as if he were Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ancient mariner hitching tattered sails. (Elsewhere, continuous banter serves as much-appreciated breathing time between distressing trips to the mansion.)
Where the movie shines unexpectedly is Kevin Smith’s editing. Conversations that might seem unwieldy are broken up with short flashbacks to podcasting memories or gorgeous black-and-white footage of Howe’s adolescence—swimming through black seawater with a striped life preserver, climbing up huge, rough stones with the life-preserver on his back. Moreover, the transitions between scenes are sublime. Droning distortion dominates the soundtrack when Wallace confronts Howe about holding him captive. The droning continues as the scene switches to girlfriend Ally’s (Genesis Rodriguez) resentful monologue about Wallace in a close shot of her face against a wall. The camera doesn’t break away but moves ever closer, the loud distortion making the scene massively unsettling.
Despite being considered gratuitous self-indulgence by some critics, Tusk ranks among Kevin Smith’s most polished work. Cinematographer James Laxton washes Smith’s impressive shot compositions with cold morning light, giving scenes alternating feelings of starkness and calm reflection. Costume designer Maya Liberman haunts dreams with her revolting contributions. The cast brings authenticity to every role, with special mention going to the magnetic Justin Long, who channels Kevin Smith’s cheeky real-life persona (with a dash of douchebag) before embracing drugged sedation and worse. Michael Parks gives several effective performances as his madness becomes more apparent; Genesis Rodriguez balances the horror with emotional depth; Johnny Depp convincingly channels Christoph Waltz as resourceful French Canadian homicide detective Guy Lapointe; and the adult Haley Joel Osment radiates brash confidence during the podcast while showing dark promise elsewhere.
Consider me adequately surprised. Tusk feels engaging throughout and maintains emotional honesty. The horrifying things that happen to its characters are not played for laughs, which was a relief, because they would have gotten monotonous. And that seems to be the point. Laughter can be cathartic when it comes from personal honesty, but can also be a defense mechanism that makes everything seem dull, especially when it’s at the expense of others. The podcast laughter over the end credits illustrates how Tusk might have otherwise become an overproduced Youtube video. We got the catharsis instead.