Kevin Smith’s Tusk opens with the sound of two men laughing at their own jokes, so I guess a doff of the cap is due to the filmmaker for encapsulating his movie so efficiently, right from the jump. It’s not just that we’re hearing podcasters Wallace (Justin Long) and Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) giggling at their own presumed cleverness; we’re hearing filmmaker-turned-podcaster-turned-filmmaker-again Smith giggling at the fact that he even made this movie, devised off-the-cuff during an episode of his “SModcast,” its production put up to a fan vote on Twitter. But it’s not like the cult of Smith — and increasingly, over the past two years, that’s exactly what he’s sculpted his remaining fans into — was going to discourage its fearless leader from making a movie if he wanted to. And, for their trouble, he’s made a movie that they will surely devour without question. I’m just not sure where the hell that leaves the rest of us, because Tusk is a mess.
Writing about Mr. Smith is tricky, because his divisiveness, coupled with his attacks on our fair profession, make it personal — it’s almost as if one’s previously held Smith baggage must be opened up and aired out before attending to the matter at hand. So, briefly: I was quite a fan of the early films, and didn’t even mind the much-loathed Cop-Out, the film that prompted his peculiar jihad against critics. And I genuinely admired his controversial 2011 film Red State, while finding its bizarre four-walling-with-Q&A release strategy puzzling at best and damaging at worst. After that film, he talked of retirement and retreated into podcasting; after listening to those initial shows, this onetime fan ultimately tuned out, turned off by the same quality that was so striking at the Red State screening I attended: the increasing insularity of both his worldview and artistic temperament. There was always an us-against-them spirit amongst those who partook of the View Askew Kool-Aid (one of the few product ideas he doesn’t seem to have exploited), but over the past couple of years, it became mighty easy for those who weren’t in his KISS Army to tune him out altogether.
And I didn’t want to see Tusk because it sounded, well, stupid.
Here’s the plot: Wallace and Teddy do a podcast called the “Not-See Party” (say it out loud), in which Wallace goes out into the world and interviews freaks and weirdos, goes back to the studio, and has to tell Teddy all about them, because Teddy never goes anywhere. They’ve made a viral sensation out of a “Star Wars Kid”-style home video, but when Wallace goes to Canada to interview its star, he discovers the kid has inconveniently killed himself. Desperate to get some pod-fodder out of the trip, Wallace discovers a handbill from Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a wheelchair-bound, retired seaman who promises room and board and stories told in exchange for help around his rambling mansion.
As Wallace drives deep into the night to the middle of nowhere, accompanied by the isolated drum track from the Fleetwood Mac song that lends the movie its title — expanded and extrapolated for the dread that’s always been lurking within it — the mood is both tense and relaxing, because the strangest thing is happening: so far, the movie works. Smith directs (as he did Red State) with the sure hand of a born genre filmmaker, and it unwinds with the winking self-knowledge of a good campfire story.
That vibe continues with the entrance of Parks, who’s doing a witty Vincent Price-style turn here, finding the menace in elegance. Smith and his actors luxuriate in the crackling fires, soft classical music, and crisp camerawork as Mr. Howe pours Wallace a cup of tea and regales him with his stories. Here, Smith’s (fleeting, at times) central theme begins to become clear: the power of storytelling, and the storyteller’s ability to hide secrets in plain sight. And then Wallace keels over from the drugged tea, Mr. Howe purrs, “There, there. It’ll be all right,” and the movie begins its long slide off the rails.
Short version: He turns Wallace into a walrus. It seems that in his seafaring days, he befriended a walrus after the sinking of his ship (in a moment that suggests Smith unwisely attempting to recreate the USS Indianapolis story in Jaws), and now he has abducted his visitor so that he can surgically transform him into the animal. In other words, it’s The Human Centipede as told by a podcaster, presumably after smoking quite a bit of weed.
In the film’s middle passages, as Howe’s plan is conveyed and the transformation begins, Smith’s hold on the material begins to wobble. Long does anguish convincingly, and Parks has a ball with these wordy Smith monologues (he really is becoming to Smith as Christoph Waltz is to Tarantino), but the closer the filmmaker edges to this precipice, the more he’s crippled by the fundamental and inescapable silliness of his premise. He can’t juggle the comedy and horror; they end up undercutting rather than serving each other, and any semblance of tone or consistency is long gone by the time (spoiler, I guess?) Johnny Depp shows up.
Depp is billed only by his character name, but his presence is unmistakable, if for no other reason than his trademark lack of discipline. Decked out in SNL-worthy facial hair and a French-Canadian accent just a touch more subtle than Clouseau, Depp appears in the third act as a private investigator assisting Teddy and Wallace’s girlfriend. His recent work has screamed of an actor whose “instincts” are so unimpeachable that no director dares ask him to take it down a notch or 12; suffice it to say Smith is not that director either. As a flashback scene of Depp and Parks throwing their funny voices at each other unfurls, with French accordion music in the background, I’m fairly certain (and certainly hopeful) that we’re watching the nadir of Mr. Smith’s work.
For whatever it’s worth, Smith has softened his stance on critics — at a moment, it must be noted, when he’s releasing a weird little indie that could probably use some critical support. And several have responded with kindness (Scott Foundas’ Variety review not only pushed aside my initial resistance, but sent me into the screening hopeful and excited). I wish I could join them. But Tusk is flabby, tone-deaf, and ultimately unsuccessful. I admire Smith’s gumption; he commits to this bad idea, and goes all the way with it. But in spite of its horror inclinations, Tusk is ultimately a joke with a promising setup and a groan-worthy punchline.
Tusk is out tomorrow.