Tusk (2014)

Posted by Joel Copling on September 18, 2014

The birth of the premise of "Tusk" seems like a joke, and that's because it pretty much was one: Kevin Smith, that auteur known for his profane but literate dialogue exchanges between characters, and Scott Mosier hosted a podcast, during which the two read from an ad on a UK website--an ad whose supposed author offered lodging to anyone interested in exchange for his role-playing a walrus. Hypothesizing that the story could be twisted into a horrifying tale of kidnap and other gruesome atrocities, Smith saw the idea through. And here at last is "Tusk," a horrifying tale of kidnap and other gruesome atrocities, the concoction simply miraculous for all the gusto with which it attempts to disgust viewers and a pitilessness that paves a highway to tragedy. It's also quite funny.

Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) and Teddy Craft (Haley Joel Osment--yes, you read that correctly, and the actor is quite impressive in what could have been a throwaway role) are hosts of a podcast themselves, titled the Not-See Party (an amusing gag being that they must always explain the joke for the sake of its pronunciation). They interview strange or interesting people, the latest of which is a YouTuber who has become something of a sensation for accidentally cutting off his own leg during a video (How this video came to be online is never answered, but never mind). Wallace, being the designated "field agent" of the two by bringing back terrific material for him and Teddy, travels to Winnipeg for the story--much to the chagrin of ignored girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez)--only to find that the subject of his latest project has committed suicide (This detail indeed makes one imagine what might have caused such a tragedy, before one remembers that it was a video on YouTube, and that pretty much says it all).

Wallace is not a great guy, made clear to him by Ally, who misses "old Wallace." Indeed, Wallace brags outright to Teddy about all the women with whom he becomes acquainted on his trips. It's as unsurprising that his reaction to the YouTuber's suicide is entirely selfish (He's more irritated about a wasted trip than about what he has already determined was a selfish decision) as his decision to follow the whims of a hand-written note to a manor house in Manitoba because its author declares that he has "such stories to tell." It's here that "Tusk" takes on the feeling of us, as audience members, being slowly strangled from behind. Even with such sarcasm and profanity eking out of the film's every orifice, Smith keeps his tension at peak level, composing an opera of dread before pulling the rug out from underneath his audience.

Enter Howard Howe (Michael Parks), the author of the letter in question. He's an odd sort, confined to a wheelchair for reasons that are never explained (A flashback near the third act sees him as pretty much entirely mobile), but my Lord, what stories he has to tell. They're war stories, these rambling tales of yesteryear, from meeting Ernest Hemingway and offering him some alcohol to washing up on a beach and being nursed back to health by a walrus that he named "Mr. Tusk." Parks is magnificent as Howard, a not-quite-"there" fellow who seems just as harmless as he is vile and cunning. Long, meanwhile, plays Wallace as loutish as the character is meant to be--until, of course, the horrific circumstances of the second and final acts remind us why even the egotistical have a reason for surviving. We root for the doomed Wallace Bryton as he becomes the sockpuppet of Howard Howe's maniacal scheme (I won't give it away here, but the title and the aforementioned story should provide clues, none of which soften the blow).

Keeping time with Wallace's narrative (amusing in itself and interrupted with a pair of ditzy convenience store clerks with the usual Canadian inflections, played by Smith's daughter Harley Quinn and Lily-Rose Melody Depp, daughter of Johnny) and Howard's deranged antics (the opposite of amusing, with some nasty and effective cinematography from James Layton and, again, the gift that is Parks' depraved Howard Howe), Smith switches gears to follow Teddy and Ally, predictably engaged in an affair but willing to drop it when it becomes clear Wallace is in trouble. They team up with a strange but wearied detective named Guy LaPointe, whose casting is the film's best joke and one of the great extended cameos in modern cinematic history; I won't ruin the surprise, since the character is credited is playing himself, but the actor is a major Hollywood go-to, disappearing under prosthetics and a silly accent but never once going too far with the caricature (A flashback between the actor and Parks is alternately goofy and entirely unnerving).

As "Tusk" reaches its third act, a transformation occurs--not only to Wallace but to the film, as well. Comparisons are cheap, as the mantra goes, but the closest thing that comes to mind is the recent, wildly underrated "Septic Man." Depraved and unflinching in its statement about one man's disturbing fetish and series of murders to attain it, there is also the appropriate tongue stapled firmly to one cheek, acknowledging both the absurdity of the film's premise and its horrific, sadistic gravity. A horror-comedy with a masterful bite and an intense control of tone, "Tusk"--like "Septic Man," like 2013's "You're Next," like 2012's "The Cabin in the Woods"--is an ungainly miracle, imperfect perfections as carefully woven into the fabric of its viewers' memory as the skin and sinew of the walrus. Much as the man was in the beginning, this movie is truly an animal.

Film Information

Justin Long (Wallace Bryton), Michael Parks (Howard Howe), Haley Joel Osment (Teddy Craft), Genesis Rodriguez (Ally Leon), Guy LaPointe (Guy LaPointe), Harley Quinn Smith (Girl Clerk #1), Lily-Rose Melody Depp (Girl Clerk #2), Harley Morenstein (Border Agent), Ralph Garman (Frank Garmin), Ashley Greene (Convenience Store Customer), Jennifer Schwalbach Smith (Gimli Slider Waitress).

Directed and written by Kevin Smith.

Rated R (disturbing violence/gore, language, sexual content).

102 minutes.

Released on September 19, 2014.