by Tom Clift
Editor’s note: This review was originally published on September 9, 2014 as part of our TIFF 2014 coverage.
In 2011, Kevin Smith took to the Sundance stage after the premiere of his then-latest film, the horror-cum-satire-cum-action movie, Red State. The film, in conjunction with a 33-minute rant about Hollywood and the death of the indie film world, led many to declare that Smith had totally lost his mind. Deadline called in “an implosion,” and Business Insider said it was time to put the director “on Hollywood crazy watch.”
With all due respect to those reputable publications, after watching Tusk in Toronto earlier this week, one thing is absolutely clear: until you see this movie, you have no idea how crazy he’s capable of being.
Where to even begin with this thing? Tusk started life on Smith’s weekly podcast, sparked by the discussion of a lodging ad of a most peculiar kind. An old man is offering a room in his mansion, rent free, on the condition that his tenant, for a few hours a day, dress up and act like a walrus. Fascinated by the listing, Smith remarks, between giggles, that the ad sounds like the premise for an old-school Hammer horror film; the tale of a deranged old loner constructing a flippered companion out of human skin. “The Human Centipede…only cuddlier.”
So here we are, some fifteen months later, and the movie actually exists; the product of a filmmaker to whom no one apparently says no. A hodgepodge of different horror B-movies, Tusk is messy, indulgent, tonally spastic, meandering, ludicrous and entirely grotesque. It plays by nobody’s rules, and follows no road map other than the twisted, rambling, pot-addled mind of its creator. There is nothing else like it, probably for good reason. And for every single one of its baffling 102 minutes, it holds you in its blubbery grasp.
In what is easily his most memorable role to date, Justin Long plays Wallace Bryton, one half of a foul-mouthed comedy podcasting duo. The film begins with him en route to Winnipeg for an interview with YouTube’s latest viral sensation, “The Kill Bill Kid.” Unfortunately for Wallace, the interview proves a bust, leaving him scrambling for material to make fun of on the following week’s show.
Enter Howard Howe, a verbose, manor-dwelling old mariner now confined to a wheelchair, whose room-for-rent notice in a dive bar washroom implies he has plenty of stories to tell. Howard is portrayed by 74-year-old Michael Parks, an actor who has twice now inspired some of the best writing of Smith’s career. In Red State he played Abin Cooper, the Fred Phelps-ish preacher whose hate-filled sermon midway through the film was made all the more disturbing by Parks’ charismatic delivery. Here, Smith lets the actor wax poetic about Howard’s life, spinning strange yarns and tall tales of sesquipedalian delight.
So the film goes along for a time, like a classic Gothic creeper. The old man is like a spider playing with his food, regaling Wallace with his stories while he waits for his moment to strike. For a writer/director who has always been better at the former, Smith manages to craft a great deal of tension in these early scenes. The flames from Howard’s fireplace flick shadows across the wall, evoking the countless haunted house pictures of yesteryear.
But Tusk is not ghost story. It’s a Creature Feature. And what a creature it is. Designed by special effects makeup artist Robert Kurtzman, Smith’s half-man, half-walrus belongs alongside Del Toro’s Pale Man and Cronenberg’s Brundlefly as one of the most repulsive movie monsters to ever writhe across the screen. The reason Howard wants to turn Wallace into a walrus is not really something that would make a great deal of sense in print (frankly, it doesn’t make much sense in the movie either).
However, the reason Smith wants to do it seems a hell of a lot more clear: because it’s really, really fucked up. Any sense of convention is abandoned in the second half, as Smith carves up and reassembles his work as out-and-out stomach-churning camp.
Running parallel to Wallace’s ordeal are the attempts of his girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) and podcast co-host (Haley Joel Osment) to rescue him from his abductor. Ultimately pretty inconsequential, it’s a B-plot that would hardly be worth mentioning were it not for the injection of a major Hollywood star as an eccentric French-Canadian investigator who joins the search late in the film. It’s a completely ridiculous performance which plays into the present surprise cameo trend, and it’s the most interesting one this particular actor has given in years. More to the point, it’s another example of Smith’s wholesale commitment to throwing expectation to the winds.
Of course you might not think that’s a good thing. There will be plenty of people who will loathe this movie. Many will dismiss it as juvenile, disgusting, pointless and masturbatory. And you what? They’re probably right. But there’s something to be said for a filmmaker with total creative freedom making something so strange and unfamiliar. It’s difficult to believe this is the same man who made Clerks and impossible to believe it’s the one who phoned in Cop Out.
You have to admit there’s a genuine creative voice behind Tusk, even when it tickles you with its mustache.
The Upside: You’ve probably never seen anything like it. And even if you hate it, Parks is fantastic.
The Downside: The climax feels very rushed. Oh, and it’s a movie about a guy being turned into a fucking walrus?
On The Side: Stick around during the end credits to hear a segment of the podcast that inspired the film itself.
For all of our Toronto International Film Festival coverage, bookmark this page.
Related Topics: Kevin Smith