Kevin Smith’s midnight movie Tusk was apparently inspired by a story told on the podcast Smith hosts with longtime collaborator Scott Mosier, but don’t let that fool you: This is clearly the writer-director’s own nightmare about losing his voice. The onetime enfant terrible of Jersey strip-malls made his name with that voice. Smith is a talker, and he makes movies about talkers: In Clerks, Mallrats, Dogma, and Chasing Amy, his characters held the world at bay with nonstop barriers of language, through their joking and riffing and snarking.
The protagonist of Tusk is just another variation on those guys, an irritatingly self-absorbed motormouth named Wallace (a mustachioed Justin Long) who hosts a podcast devoted to dumb stuff on the internet with his pal Teddy (an unexpectedly chubby Haley Joel Osment). He travels to Winnipeg to interview a young man dubbed the Kill Bill Kid (à la the real-life Star Wars Kid), whose video of himself wielding a samurai sword and accidentally slicing off one of his legs has gone viral. But by the time Wallace arrives in Canada, the Kill Bill Kid has killed himself, and our hero is left in the middle of nowhere without a story to record. “I might as well try to find some other Canadian weirdo out here,” he tells Teddy over the phone.
That’s when he chances upon a letter posted in a men’s bathroom from someone claiming to have lived “a life of adventure with stories to tell.” So Wallace rides out two hours to the middle of nowhere, where he meets Howard Howe (cult movie and TV legend Michael Parks), an odd, elegant man in a wheelchair who lives in a stately woodland home named Pippy Hill. Howard begins to regale Wallace with his seafaring adventures during World War II and a tale of being shipwrecked and saved by a walrus he called Mr. Tusk. Howard appears to be quite fond of walruses: “They are far more evolved than any man I’ve ever known, present company included,” he tells a clueless Wallace. Indeed, the aging gentleman would like to transform Wallace into a walrus — both because he thinks it would be better for the world, and also because he misses his old friend, Mr. Tusk. And so, the tongue-in-cheek body horror begins, as if Weird Al Yankovic decided to remake Human Centipede.
Tusk is a goof, and it’s filmed like a goof — Smith’s camera feels inert even when it moves — but there’s something very serious at its core. The centerpiece of the film consists of lengthy, florid ruminations from Howard in which he quotes Coleridge, Shakespeare, and Hemingway; this is probably the most talky movie you’ll ever see about a guy being forcibly turned into a walrus. But the increasing contrast between the chatty Howard and the quieted, moaning, terrified Wallace is unnerving. Here’s a guy whose whole life and career, whose entire persona, has been built on his ability to use language, and he’s being transformed before our very eyes into a beast that’s unable to express itself. It’s hard not to sense Smith’s own anxieties rising to the surface. And as we watch this once-irritating young man, who could dismiss even the most horrific event with a joke and a shrug, become terrifyingly mute, he starts to gain our sympathy – not just because he’s a victim, but also because, for the first time, he’s faced with a situation he can’t joke and shrug away. Turning into another creature and losing his voice, ironically, makes him more human.
There’s a lot of flab in Tusk, much of it having to do with Wallace’s girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) and Teddy attempting to find and rescue their friend, not to mention the thoroughly inane antics of a Quebecois cop played by an uncredited Johnny Depp. Smith clearly wants to Tarantino it up by playfully going off on narrative tangents, but he doesn’t have Tarantino’s storytelling dexterity or his innate feel for structure; here, it just looks like a mistake. One wonders how the film might have worked if it focused only on Wallace’s transformation and didn’t bother with trying to expand its story. But then, Smith might not have been able to distract us from the fact that right in the middle of his not-trying-too-hard, cult-movie wannabe, he’s given us something that speaks to his (and our) deepest fears. Tusk is not a particularly good movie, but the vivid anxiety dream at its heart makes it one of the most personal films this writer-director has ever made.