Tusk signals a mutual reinvention for two major Hollywood players. That reinvention just so happens to come in the form of a guy trapped inside a walrus suit that's stitched together Frankenstein's monster style.
In other words, it's a completely bug-nuts reinvention for both writer-director Kevin Smith and the film's not-so-secret co-star, Johnny Depp. Smith, an independent maverick who's lately been more interesting, if not simultaneously polarizing, away from movie sets than on them, has made his most focused and altogether best movie since 1994's Clerks. Depp, meanwhile, has admirably reverted back to his old Edward D. Wood, Jr./Ichabod Crane/Raoul Duke days of unhinged on-screen peculiarity—moreover, Depp has done so in a quirky indie genre flick that's leagues below the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise in terms of pay grade and budget. It leaves you excited for the recently announced Yoga Hosers, Smith's next project which will find Depp replaying his Tusk character, eccentric Quebec homicide detective Guy LaPointe, in a film about "high school students who must use their yoga skills to fight an ancient evil."
Who knew that Kevin Smith could be such an impressive horror filmmaker? Famously known for his ultra fan-boy personality and dick-and-fart-jokes sense of humor, Smith has gained a massive and loyal following whom love his brand of sophomoric entertainment, but he's also aggressively alienated everyone who doesn't find his teenage boy comedy the least bit amusing. Which is why his last movie, Red State, was so enticing: could the guy responsible for Zack and Miri Make a Porno direct a legitimately unnerving psychological horror movie about a crazed, Jim Jones-esque cult leader? The answer, for anyone who's seen Red State (2011), was a resounding "no," thanks to Smith's inability to go full disturbance and insistence on diluting Michael Parks' truly creepy performance as said cult leader with an unfitting streak of lowbrow comedy.
Tusk doesn't have that problem.
Based on a story Smith shared on his SModcast in June 2013 (episode title: "The Walrus and the Carpenter"), Tusk follows podcaster Wallace Brighton (Justin Long), who, along with his friend Teddy (Haley Joel Osment), hosts the popular online show "The Not-See Party," a knowingly insensitive play on words that references the podcast's unique format: Wallace travels around the world, interviews fascinating strangers, and comes back to tell the stationary-in-America Teddy all about them. While in Canada chasing down a potentially huge lead, Wallace catches wind of an old man who lives in the boonies of Manitoba, and who claims to have countless stories to tell about his years spent at sea. That man is Howard Howe (Michael Parks). When Wallace drives two hours into the middle of nowhere to interview him, Howard shares one whopper of a memory: in 1959, he was a lowly kitchen aid on a ship sailing near Normandy, and a freak accident left him lost at sea; after climbing onto a small island of rocks, Howard befriended a walrus he later named "Mr. Tusk." And now that he's drugged Wallace, Howard can finally carry out his decades-long dream of recreating Mr. Tusk using a human being.
Indeed, Tusk is about a psychotic recluse who turns a guy into a walrus. You see that manmade walrus in all of its what-the-fuck hideousness, and it doesn't disappoint. If anything, it's more preposterous than you're envisioning.
Give Kevin Smith all the points for bringing something original to horror, as well as cinema in general. He winks at some of the horror genre's staples, namely the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre in a frenetic dinner table scene that's not unlike Chainsaw's one with Sally being taunted by her insane captors. But that moment aside, Tusk is something audiences have never seen before—the closest parallel would be The Human Centipede, yet Tusk's skillful execution makes that gross 2009 Dutch shockfest seem like even more of a one-trick pony. The Human Centipede's villain, Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser), is a Barnum & Bailey showman, a cartoonishly drawn mad doctor who strongly acted but ludicrously written; Howard Howe looks and feels like an actual person and not a caricature. Like he did with Red State's Pastor Abin Cooper, Parks embodies Smith's best lines of dialogue with his signature old-man gravel and soft-spoken introspection. He's officially the Christoph Waltz to Kevin Smith's Quentin Tarantino.
And in Johnny Depp, Smith has Tusk's equivalent to Inglourious Basterds' barely identifiable Mike Myers cameo, except that Depp's a full-fledged character here. Guy LaPointe is a loopy, unattractive spewer of exposition, able to explain Howard Howe's history as a crazed mutilator and killer. He's a comedic flip on Psycho's Det. Arbogast. Wearing a clearly fake prosthetic nose and pounds of facial makeup, Depp as LaPointe is what the Austin Powers series' revolting Fat Bastard would look like if he'd shed a hundred or so pounds. Depp obviously has an absolute blast in the role. LaPointe openly discusses how the Canadian dish poutine gives him "the shits," and talks about amputations and murder while playing with his meal at a dumpy fast food joint like a messy kid. It makes you hope Johnny Depp travels with Kevin Smith and Tusk to Austin's Fantastic Fest later this month, sees other batshit indie genre movies of this kind, and decides to say goodbye to Hollywood and solely work in the lo-fi weird.
Tusk, it should be noted, isn't flawless. Occasionally, Smith's toilet-bowl comedy sensibilities get the best of him—Wallace tells his girlfriend (Génesis Rodriguez) about his trip to Canada by saying he's "taking a Cana-deuce," and, later, inside Howe's living room, Wallace pretends to stroke the exhibited bone from inside a walrus' "cock" and mimes its ejaculation. Those idiotic asides are, fortunately, overshadowed by stronger moments of sustained dread—the first time you see Wallace-as-walrus is mind-scarring stuff, as is the visual of two guys in scabbed-up and bloody walrus suits wrestling each other while grunting and howling.
The last time Kevin Smith tried to make a broad comedy, the final product was 2010's Cop Out, an airball that Smith himself has publicly labeled as the worst experience of his professional career. The one-two DIY genre combo of Red State and Tusk have reinvigorated the guy—in Tusk, specifically, he's reached a new creative plateau. If Smith is wise, he'll stay in this lane permanently and keep Johnny Depp riding shotgun the whole way.
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