Kevin Smith has reached a point in his life where he wants to make films that don’t play it safe, and while I am all for that attitude in filmmaking, I wish Smith would have fully committed to that rebellious confidence and enthusiasm in his latest genre effort. Tusk has trouble finding its footing from the get-go, as we’re introduced to podcaster Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) and his best friend Teddy Craft (Haley Joel Osment), who together form the shock blog outfit they call “The Not-See Party.” Their latest victim of ridicule is “The Kill Bill Kid,” an unfortunate child who became a viral video sensation after accidentally cutting off his leg with a samurai sword.
The CGI effect of the mocked kid’s severed leg looks completely fake and the tone of the scene practically begs the audience to join Wallace and Teddy’s long-winded howls of laughter and mean-spiritedness. If Smith would have stuck to his guns on this tone and wanted the audience to laugh subjectively at every moment of this film as pure spectacle, I could have been completely on board, but the self-aware perspective that oozes in as we watch these events unfold doesn’t last for long, and the tone soon begins to shift gears into a schizophrenic mess.
Wallace ventures up to Canada for an exclusive interview with the legless celebrity and when a tragic event leaves Wallace with a missed opportunity to further exploit him, Wallace soon believes he’s struck a goldmine with another potential podcast exclusive with a mysterious seafarer named Howard Howe (Michael Parks). When Wallace arrives at the mysterious hermit’s isolated home, Michael Parks gives a brilliant and creepy performance that is completely at odds with the obnoxiousness of Justin Long’s character, who sucks the tension out of every moment of Howe’s dialogue whenever he opens his mouth.
There’s a moment at the dinner table when Howard Howe delivers a profound and unsettling monologue that quotes “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and all of the suspense that this scene builds is completely undone by the reactions of Wallace, who still attempts to be in control of the situation. It’s a microcosm of how Smith handles the tone of this entire film: one moment he’s building psychological suspense, the next he unravels it as a joke. The balance of horror and comedy requires total commitment in order for it to really work and it is Smith’s indecisiveness (or lack of confidence in what he’s doing) that becomes Tusk’s entire downfall.
The film briefly goes into body horror mode and I was delighted with the full-on creepiness this film was finally venturing into and embracing. Robert Kurtzman’s practical walrus effects are a sight to behold and right when you think Smith has settled into a flow of bizarre horror, we meet Guy Lapointe. One of the worst kept secrets about Tusk was the stunt casting of Johnny Depp, who was given the role originally intended for Quentin Tarantino. Depp’s daughter also appears early in the film as a convenience store sidekick to Smith’s daughter and the spinoff movie featuring those characters has already been announced.
Johnny Depp’s eccentric French Canadian detective not only outstays his welcome but sinks this movie like a ruthless anchor. Every small ounce of tension, suspense or even caring about what happens with these characters is shoved aside by Depp’s scenery-chewing attempt to channel Jacques Clouseau. There’s a flashback scene between Lapointe and Howe pretending to be mentally challenged and it’s so audacious that I would have admired the ridiculousness of it…if Smith knew when to end it.
James Laxton’s cinematography is restrained for the most part, which helps the quiet moments that do work in the film’s favor; Christopher Drake’s score actually compliments it very well. Tusk feels like a missed opportunity: there’s still a part of me that feels like Smith could take one of these bizarre ideas and actually flesh out an engaging story and bravely commit to his bizarre choices without pulling back and resorting to what he’s comfortable with. It’s great that Kevin Smith has these daring ideas and odd concepts, but it takes commitment and restraint to make this concept work as an engaging film, which is why Tusk ultimately fails.
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