Once upon a time, in a recording studio far away, Kevin Smith and his producing partner Scott Mosier settled into episode 259 of their weekly podcast, SModCast. As the session began, Smith began to read and discuss a fake, yet hilariously intriguing, sublet ad that was posted on a website called Gumtree on June 6, 2013. The advertisement described an older man looking to rent a bedroom within his house to an individual or a party of two. The notice takes a turn for the strange when the advertisement states that this man has lived a “long and interesting life” during which he spent three years in complete isolation on St. Lawrence island off of the Canadian coast with a single companion: Gregory the Walrus. As Smith struggles to maintain composure throughout the rest of the post, he and Scott do something extraordinary: they run with the idea. Then, after an hour of banter and laughter, “Tusk” is born.
I included this preface to my review of Kevin Smith’s “Tusk” as a sort of caveat that will allow anyone to enjoy the beautiful absurdity of this work of horrific hilarity. With that said, “Tusk” is neither a conventional horror film nor a typical comedy; in fact, it rides the line between these two genres with a tactfully awkward grace that brilliantly subscribes to Smith and Mosier’s inception of the film. I will also say something else: If the idea of “The Human Centipede” tickles your gag reflex or makes you cry, watch this film anyway. As the old saying goes: no pain, no gain.
“Tusk” follows a cheeky podcaster named Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) who ventures to the land of Canada to follow up on a YouTube video akin to that of the real life viral sensations “Lightsaber guy” and “Tron Guy.” Yet, when Wallace discovers that the young Internet sensation has committed suicide as a result of his infamous video, the self-absorbed podcaster fears the worst for his next show. Then, in a chance encounter with a sublet ad placed in the bathroom of a Canadian bar, Wallace uncovers the lead of a lifetime. Or, so he thinks.
Although I cringe at the thought of a spoiler-ridden review, I will be upfront about the twist of “Tusk:” The ad is a trap. Enter Howard Howe (played brilliantly by Michael Parks): a man who has lived a long and eventful life that almost came to an end when he shipwrecked in the middle of Arctic waters. When all hope was lost, a blur of blubber and strength came to the rescue, securing Howe and depositing him on a remote island where he was later discovered and rescued. As you have probably guessed, Howe’s savior was a walrus. With a newfound obsession for the creature that saved his life, Howe vows to recreate his kinship with the walrus: a companionship that he has not felt with any other humans or otherwise. In order to realize his dream, Howe must create it. Sorry Wally: Wrong place, wrong time. That’s it! No more spoilers.
Right off the bat, Smith displays — although sometimes a little too self-consciously — his attention to detail, specifically with his lead character. Known for his implementation of heavily verbose conversation pieces within his earlier works, Smith approaches “Tusk” in the way that we have come to expect (see “Clerks” if you haven’t already. It’s absolutely fantastic). Throughout the film, Wallace openly airs out his arrogance towards his own celebrity and the success of his podcast during conversations with his girlfriend (played by Genesis Rodriguez) and the swathe of Canadian residents that he encounters as he chases his next big lead. To many viewers, these exchanges may seem over the top or lengthy at times, but Smith uses these moments to not only poke fun at the vapidity of his lead, but to also place a microscope on himself as a successful podcaster that openly laughs at his own jokes and most likely enjoys hearing himself talk. Smith also crafts Wallace as the embodiment of a walrus (sound it out), complete with an absurdly prominent mustache that resembles large tusks. This far from subtle tongue-in-cheek character design begs to be laughed at, an intention that I deem worthy of applause.
Aside from Wallace, Howard receives an equally impressive characterization. Although his dialogue with Wallace, especially across an absurdly long dinner table early on in the film, I would sing most of the praise to Michael Parks. Immediately, the viewer can simply feel the danger lurking behind Howard’s glasses and piercing gaze (even though Wallace is completely oblivious), adding a level of dramatic irony that permeates the entire first act.
Below the surface of the film’s quirky narrative, Smith balances some pretty incredible reflexive thought on the process of story telling and what it means to be human. Podcasts represent the new generation of storytelling that has come to be known as far more raw and explicit than that of traditional radio. Within this diagram, Wallace acts as the irreverent embodiment of this new wave of spoken word that objectifies the people he speaks to as well as the human subjects that he profiles on his show. Then, when his captor puts his humanity to the test, Wallace loses his ability to speak as Howe forcibly transforms him into a beast. When the dust of the grisly third act settles, Smith delivers a poignant moment that surprisingly ends the film on a heavy note, one that calls into question what constitutes the human spirit.
Overall, “Tusk” delivers exactly what one would expect from the synopsis while also demanding some profound thought from the viewer. Anyone with an appetite for laughs, gore, and overall absurdity will undoubtedly find at least a few things to love about this film.
Rent “Tusk” on Google Play or Amazon.