If you see one film about Justin Long getting kidnapped in the hinterlands of Canada, drugged by a crazed mariner, and surgically transformed into a walrus, make it Kevin Smith’s Tusk. If you see two films about that exact same situation happening, please close the portal to whatever hellish alternate dimension you came from lest it seep into our own. Tusk is one of those films that stays with you long after you leave the theater. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing though is squarely in your court.
The film, inspired by an episode of SModcast, follows Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), a mustachioed podcaster (a nice touch) who, along with his best friend Teddy (Haley Joel Osment), hosts the eye-rollingly named Not-See Party Podcast. Wallace travels around the world collecting weird, oddball stories while Teddy stays at home. Wallace then returns to recount the story to Teddy who did not see what happened. Hence the nudge, nudge, wink, wink of a name.
Despite the groanworthy name, the podcast is wildly popular, and Wallace and Teddy seem to enjoy a great amount of success, living comfortably off their merchandising revenue and ad sales. As happens to many young new media types, success has gone to Wallace’s head, making him increasingly mean-spirited, arrogant, and selfish, much to his longtime girlfriend Allison’s (Genesis Rodriguez) chagrin. When Wallace takes a trip to Manitoba to interview a viral video sensation – the Kill Bill Kid, a teen who accidentally cut off his leg while playing with a katana – he finds that his would-be interviewee has passed away, having taking his own life.
Frustrated at having wasted his time and being out the cost of a plane ticket, Wallace takes to a local watering hole where he discovers a fascinating handbill posted on a bathroom bulletin board offering free room and board in exchange for listening to an ancient mariner’s tales of life on the high seas. Determined not to go home empty-handed, Wallace makes the drive deep into the backwoods of Canada in order to interview the man behind the advertisement.
Unfortunately, what Wallace finds is more than he bargained for. The mariner in question is a mysterious, wheelchair-bound man named Howard Howe (Michael Parks) who regales Wallace with wild, fantastical, Kipling-esque tales of gallivanting across the globe. Most pertinently, the story of how a walrus saved his life. Soon, though, Wallace realizes he has been drugged, and passes out before he realizes that Howard has stood up from his wheelchair and is looming over him. When he wakes up, he’s missing something, something important that I won’t ruin here. And then, as you may have surmised, Howard Howe proceeds his grim, gleeful work of transforming Wallace into a horrifying chimera of his onetime walrus companion.
The film is some of Smith’s most fascinating work to date, ruminating on the nature of obsession and how far people are willing to go in pursuit of what they desire. All of the characters, especially Wallace, are presented as flawed, sometimes unlikable people who have a comeuppance coming their way. Obsessed with success and building his personal brand even if it’s at the expense of his friends and loved ones, Wallace is not a good person. With each t-shirt sold, he gains more fans and gets one mustache hair closer to sleeping with groupies on the road. Howard Howe is a man driven to insanity by the shame and survivor’s guilt he felt over what he was driven to do to Mr. Tusk, his walrus savior, and is processing those feelings in a particularly sociopathic way.
Both Parks and Long turn in searing performances, commanding and demanding your attention every time they’re on screen. In the darkness of the screening room, it was all but impossible not to hear the sharp, staccato intakes of air whenever the duo appeared on screen together.
Tusk is a bit like witnessing a two-hour long car crash — wholly engrossing, at times revolting, but impossible not to watch. I found myself vacillating between laughing at some of the seriously punchy exchanges and sitting in slack-jawed horror as I watched Kevin Smith plumb the depths of human misery. Tonally, though, that can be a bit jarring for the viewer. Like that one Smiths song, the film oscillates wildly back and forth between moments of being uproariously funny and deeply unnerving, which creates a sense of narrative whiplash.
Although Tusk continues Smith’s apparent obsession with Canada, it is mainly played for laughs at the expense of our neighbors to the north. For the most part it’s innocent, tongue-in-cheek jokes like naming a convenience store EH-2-ZED filled with goofy Easter Eggs for Hollywood Babble-On listeners. The only time it really threatens to derail the proceedings is when the French-Canadian private investigator Guy LaPointe (played by a certain A-list celebrity) joins Teddy and Allison in searching for Wallace. The character feels like he strolled in from another film entirely, and it doesn’t really gel with everything else up to that point, especially the film’s more horrific elements.
So, should you see Tusk? If you’re a diehard Kevin Smith fan, it’s a foregone conclusion that you’ll see it. If you’re a casual Smith fan like myself, it’s complicated. As a cinematic experience, I found it existentially distressing, but I watched with rapt attention the entire time. I am genuinely not sure whether or not I like Tusk, but I appreciate it and I’m glad that I’ve seen it.
Rating: 3.5/5 Burritos
Tusk is in theaters everywhere September 19.