Macabre Horror-Comedy "Tusk" Is Gleefully On Point

In 1994, micro-budget indie “Clerks” turned writer-director Kevin Smith from guppy filmmaker to full-fledged indie darling. The picture’s mix of enthusiasm for the medium and searing irreverence proved irresistible to festival audiences, accruing a sizeable fanbase that would carry over to the home video market. After two worthy spiritual successors – “Mallrats” and “Chasing Amy” – Smith visibly ran out of steam, clumsily bearing the weight of obligation. The overwrought “Dogma” was the first warning sign of what was to come, with each subsequent film bleeding into the last, rarely adding up to more than “the latest Kevin Smith film” – serving his “View Askew” brand but falling short as individual pieces of cinema.

The films that followed “Dogma” felt insular and self-reverent, contradicting the same devil-may-care bent that launched Smith’s career in the first place. Apart from the modest charm of “Clerks II,” the 2000s were unkind, topped off by a directorial gig on the ill-fated Bruce Willis-Tracy Morgan buddy cop dud, “Cop Out.” It was Smith’s nadir and he knew it, lamenting the experience to anyone who’d listen. 2011 horror pic “Red State” was a worthy experiment, ostensibly allowing the filmmaker to shed his creative skin, but its tonal issues, dearth of humor, and unusual release strategy rightfully puzzled many.

Enter “Tusk,” the movie that just might save Kevin Smith. Based on a lark of an idea from an episode of the filmmaker’s loose, pot-aided podcast (SModcast), it’s a film so openly inessential that it circles back around to vitality, frequently finding that elusive sweet spot between horror and comedy. When it’s dark, it’s capital-letters-dark – likely to turn heads and stomachs in equal measure – but niftily mines those same dark corners for big, heaping laughs. Pacing issues aside – the filmmaker’s love of long, dialogue-heavy scenes isn’t ideal for the genre – the cackling, crackling madness of “Tusk” is the perfect antidote to a wayward career.

Justin Long (“Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story”) stars as Wallace, a self-assured, mustached podcast host whose show – dedicated to mocking outcasts and ne’er-do-wells – has become increasingly mean-spirited. As the film begins, he sets out to Manitoba, Canada to interview the unwilling star of a viral video in the vein of “Star Wars Kid,” only to arrive at the recently deceased boy’s house, mid-wake. Down an interviewee, Wallace responds to an ad posted in a bar restroom, a handwritten note from an old mariner seeking friendship. He meets Howard Howe (Michael Parks, “Red State”) at his shadowy, remote enclave, finding the old man’s stories intriguing – intrigue that soon turns to apprehension. Wallace is unceremoniously drugged, waking up sans left leg.

Like a psychedelic “Misery” or “The Elephant Man” with a happy ending, but in reverse, Howe traps Wallace with plans to fashion him into a walrus, approximating the only true friend he’s ever had – a tusked creature that saved his life when he was young, seafaring military man. While Wallace’s podcast co-host (Haley Joel Osment, “The Sixth Sense”) and girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez, “Identity Thief”) attempt to locate him, he’s methodically fused with a lifelike walrus suit, Smith tactfully holding the reveal of Howe’s stitched-together monster as long as possible, before pulling up the curtain to shocking, nauseating effect.

Evocative of Danny DeVito’s Penguin in Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns” – but all the more nightmarish – the suit is less suit and more human-animal hybrid, allowing Long to extend his performance from hilarious to bizarre to bizarrely heartbreaking. Park’s didactic drawl combined with Long’s incredulity turned shallow yelping makes for some unlikely, deeply weird drama, tension that’s sustained through the pic’s entirety, but never wavering from an undercurrent of “what the hell is this?”-style humor. Part Stephen King, part Tim Burton, the narrative in “Tusk” is everything it could possibly be, and Smith brings it to life almost effortlessly.

Burton’s presence is also felt in the form of his longtime co-conspirator, Johnny Depp (credited as Guy LaPointe), who features heavily in the pic’s second half as the aforementioned Guy LaPointe, a French Canadian detective on the hunt for a walrus-obsessed serial killer. Goofily channeling his inner Frenchman – think Sacha Baron Cohen in “Talladega Nights” – Depp commits to the part full bore, obviously having a ball free from the pressure of carrying a big-budget film. Hidden behind a prosthetic nose but not exactly trying to conceal his identity, the star gives the pic the kick it needs when its pacing falters, lending one more notch of the surreal to its bedpost.

But the film wouldn’t work without the talents of Justin Long – both in and out of the walrus suit – and his performance here is indispensible. A career high for him – and an early career high for a startlingly good Genesis Rodriguez – “Tusk” provides the kind of fertile creative ground that certain kinds of curio-inclined performers dream of, and Smith is more than happy to indulge them. Twenty years on from “Clerks,” Smith has improbably rediscovered that same creative spark through a movie about a man unwillingly turned into a pet walrus, a work that impossibly alternates between inducing laughter and vomit. Most importantly, he’s finally found the cure for aging filmmakers getting long in the tooth: getting long in the tooth.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: September 19, 2014
Studio: A24
Director: Kevin Smith
Screenwriter: Kevin Smith
Starring: Justin Long, Michael Parks, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez, Guy LaPointe
MPAA Rating: R (for some disturbing violence/gore, language and sexual content)