WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
At one point in Kevin Smith’s Tusk, an “age-old” question is posed: “Is man, indeed, a walrus at heart?” Perhaps instead the question should be, “Did Kevin Smith, indeed, even try to make a good movie?” He certainly made a movie with an outrageous premise that he himself wanted to see. As many know, the idea for Tusk was born from a SModcast podcast, “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” in which Smith and co-host Scott Mosier discussed a Gumtree ad (since proven to be a hoax), in which an old man advertised for a lodger who would be willing to wear a walrus suit for two hours a day. Smith and Mosier proceeded to brainstorm what a similar walrus-themed horror movie would look like and in the course of the podcast sketched out the basic plot of Tusk (be aware, if you listen to the entirety of “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” you will learn a lot about the film, including the ending). Smith then asked listeners to vote on whether or not he should make such a movie. Obviously, the consensus was “#WalrusYes,” and Smith was given license to indulge his whims and create Tusk. But self-indulgence rarely produces a cohesive, effective movie; this is certainly the case with the inconsistent and bloated Tusk, making me wonder if Smith actually endeavored to produce something beyond the lark he imagined in his podcast.
It’s a shame because the material sounded bizarrely promising. Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), a successful podcaster, flies to Manitoba to interview the “Kill Bill Kid,” a viral video sensation who sliced off his own leg while wielding a katana. The Kid commits suicide before Wallace’s arrival; Wallace then finds a flyer in a bar bathroom from a gentleman promising to share stories from his life at sea, and in order to not return to LA empty-handed, Wallace travels to the man’s remote estate for an interview. Wallace is an obnoxious ass. Success has made him cavalier and crass: he cheats on his girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez), who laments that he is no longer “old Wallace”; mocks and profits from other people’s misfortunes via his podcast; and generally treats everyone he meets with disrespect. But he is impressed with the stories of Howard Howe (Michael Parks)—he deems himself a storyteller, too—and listens intently to his tales of World War II, Ernest Hemingway and, ultimately, the walrus that saved Howe’s life when he was shipwrecked. Wallace listens, that is, until he passes out; Howe has drugged him and takes him captive with the goal of transforming him into his old walrus friend, Mr. Tusk.
The premise is admittedly crazy. But the transformation of man into animal (or the mutation of the two) has produced some unsettling, provocative meditations on what constitutes a human being; think, for instance, of Jacque Tourneur’s Cat People or David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Walruses do not have much cultural cachet; with the exception of Lewis Carroll and the Beatles, not many artists have incorporated the walrus into their works and I imagine many people are unaware of the walrus’s attributes. My hope was that Smith would utilize this rather unique idea to explore, in a fresh light, humanity and savagery, as exemplified in both Wallace and Howe.
Tusk, however, has no room for exploration, or for subtlety (as one might surmise from the fact that the walrus-bound main character is named Wallace and has an unsightly mustache). Howe is a monster that creates monsters; we are provided a bit of backstory to justify his disdain for people, but, really, all we know is that he is certifiably insane. Wallace has lost his humanity but kinda-sorta finds it in the throes of terror and—as Smith heavy-handedly demonstrates—once he has been turned into a walrus (although I’m still not sure what it is to be a walrus; Howe idolizes the gentleness and camaraderie of the original Mr. Tusk but encourages the Wallace version to be hardened and, in fact, more human). That’s about as deep as the movie goes.
There isn’t much time to chart Wallace’s psychological transformation because his physical transformation is completed much more quickly in the movie than I expected. I originally envisioned a series of disturbing, escalating bodily modifications that Wallace would endure throughout the course of the movie; I have the feeling, however, that Kevin Smith was pretty psyched about the walrus suit, for he hastens to get to it as quickly as possible. As a consequence, the tension initially established when Wallace first awakens to find he is missing his leg—tension that could have been sustained and built throughout the course of the film had he been forced to come to terms with Howe’s machinations by degrees—is too quickly eradicated when, after the next surgery, Wallace has already gone “full walrus.” Undeniably, this form of Wallace is grotesque, disturbing, and pathetic, but it’s also pretty silly, and having to watch multiple scenes of Walrus the Wallace was uncomfortable—not in the good, makes-you-think way, but more in the “I’m starting to feel like this is a bad movie” way. Furthermore, when you’re a walrus, you don’t have much to say; we lose Wallace’s voice and, with it, any chance to give him a narrative arc. The rush to walrus is thus both visually and thematically unsatisfying.
If I’m treating this as a horror film and not addressing the comedic aspects of Tusk, it’s because the intended comedy is monumentally weak. There is a bevvy of clichéd Canada jokes, and the inexplicable appearance of Johnny Depp (uncredited and in disguise!) as a heavily accented Quebecois investigator named Guy Lapointe, to whom Ally and Wallace’s friend and co-host Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) turn in an effort to find the missing Wallace. The Lapointe scenes seem to last forever and add nothing to the movie; I see them as Smith’s attempt to justify calling this a “horror-comedy” movie. But the material begs to simply be horror; Smith works against it, derailing any consistently identifiable tone. A man transformed into a walrus is absurd, and dark comedy could have emerged subtly and organically from a well-plotted exploration of this situation, while remaining primarily in the horror vein. I certainly would have preferred this alternative to being bludgeoned with occasional, failed attempts at explicate humor.
Is there anything that succeeds in this movie? Yes, and that is the acting and rapport of Justin Long and Michael Parks. Long well establishes Wallace as a callous douchebag, but really shines in the (too-few) scenes between his drugging and final body modification. I wasn’t fazed by the fact that he starts as an unsympathetic character because his ensuing fear and vulnerability strips away the cocky façade and feels authentic; he even manages to emote with his eyes and vocalizations through the ridiculous walrus suit. But I wish he’d been given less bleating and more speaking, in order to more fully react to and engage with Parks. His Howard Howe balances poetry with psychopathy, and while Johnny Depp’s monologues pained me, I appreciated the florid language, quotes, and speeches Kevin Smith gives to Parks. His onscreen presence is enthralling, something I first noticed in his role as Esteban Vihaio in Kill Bill: Vol. 2; in Tusk he conveys a mixture of eloquent decorum and childlike abandon. Had Smith allowed Tusk to be a chamber piece between Justin Long and Michael Parks, exploring the dynamics of their relationship, the movie would have been much more interesting and ultimately could have been more horrifying, while perhaps also making good on its promise to probe the power of story-telling (the movie’s tagline, after all, is “Let me tell you a story”).
What is frustrating is that, in the “Walrus and the Carpenter” podcast, Kevin Smith states that he won’t make the same mistake as other horror movies and give screen time to the people searching for the protagonist; he says that the focus will be solely upon the two main characters. I am baffled that he kept many of his stupider ideas—including the ludicrous climax and eye-rolling denouement—and threw away this, his best. Tusk has remained with me since I left the theatre, but not because it is a compelling movie. To the contrary, it’s a pretty bad movie, yet I keep thinking about it because it could have been so much more.