Kevin Smith is eating himself

The filmmaker comes up with a dumb idea for a horror movie, shares it on his podcast, then actually makes the thing.


Kevin Smith on the set of Tusk, with Justin Long (left)

About 10 years ago, filmmaker Kevin Smith came to a realization: he was really good at talking. It turned out that people who didn’t even necessarily like his movies liked to listen to him talk. He started gradually moving away from making movies and focused on talking: first, in a series of concert films that breached the gap between a lecture and a stand-up comedy act, then in an ever-expanding series of podcasts that eventually grew to become the Smodcast network. It’s on one of these podcasts that Smith came up with the idea for Tusk; if you listen to the episode (it’s also excerpted in the movie’s end credits), it’s hard not to share in the excitement and glee that Smith has as he unravels this insane Human Centipede-inspired horror film. In 99 per cent of the cases where a filmmaker expounds on a silly idea in such a way, we never get to witness a final product. Tusk is the rare breed of film that went from half-baked riff to final product in front our very eyes, but it’s also a rather valid case for dumb ideas remaining ideas.

Wallace (Justin Long) is a former stand-up comedian who has found great success with an Internet culture podcast called the Not See Party in which he watches viral videos and describes them to his co-host (Haley Joel Osment), after which they laugh like braying jackasses for 20 minutes. Wallace discovers a video from a kid in Winnipeg wherein the kid chops his own leg off with a samurai sword (shades of Trois-Rivières’s Star Wars Kid abound) and decides he absolutely needs an interview, only to show up in Canada to find the kid has killed himself out of shame. It’s not too long before Wallace discovers a classified ad from an old sailor named Howard Howe (Michael Parks), who’s offering room and board in exchange for help with menial tasks — oh, and also, he’s obsessed with walruses ever since he spent some time on a desert island with one, and he will go to great lengths drugging people, amputating them and sewing them into human-skin walrus suits of his own design in order to recapture that magic.

Tusk is ostensibly more horror-driven than even Smith’s previous semi-coherent attempt at terror, Red State; it’s actually rather well-shot, bringing out a Southern Gothic (or Northern Gothic, I guess) tone to the proceedings that makes the more horrific scenes work rather well. Unfortunately, these make up about 30 per cent of the movie — the rest of it is filled with exactly the kinds of things I’d hoped Smith would be moving away from in making movies like this. Long’s character is supremely irritating (which is definitely on purpose) and the use of flashbacks with him and his girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) only serve to belabour the point that, of all people who deserve to get sewn into a walrus suit, he’s definitely a strong contender. Parks is clearly having a ball with his character, but Smith basically reduces him to a series of interminable flowery  monologues (which he was also saddled with in Red State), preferring to keep him off-screen when he doesn’t have at least a page of shit to say.

Yet Tusk really only goes off the rails in its final act, when a Sûreté du Québec inspector named Guy Lapointe is introduced. Lapointe is played by a certain A-list movie star in shades and a walrus mustache — it’s possible that by the time you read this, the identity of said star will be common knowledge (other outlets have already revealed it). Needless to say, his appearance gives the film a jolt of bizarre energy. Although his portrayal of a Québécois (a Duplessis orphan, no less — Smith is nothing if not thorough in his pilfering of Canadian lore) is fairly dumb, it’s hard not to get at least a little kick out of it. But the cameo starts to drag after 10 minutes, after which we are treated to a long and pointless flashback, followed by another 10 minutes of rambling jokey Canadian nonsense, after which Lapointe follows the intrepid heroes (Rodriguez and Osment) to rescue Wallace. Whatever momentum the film has built in the interplay between Long and Parks evaporates in this stupid tangential lark that Smith has decided to indulge.

Tusk is too weird and too unusual to be completely worthless, but it’s also undeniably stupid and scattershot. This is wholly intentional: Tusk, for all of its flaws, does exactly what it says it’s going to do on the box. It plays exactly like something you would make up with your friends, down to the surface-level obviousness of its Canadian jokes and references and the stunt-casting of a major Hollywood star in a role you would assume to be beneath him (for what it’s worth, Tarantino was originally considered for the role, after which the film could easily have been called Jerkin’ It With Kev). Your appreciation for Tusk’s multitude of nonsense and whiplash-inducing tonal shifts will likely be parallel to your appreciation for Smith himself. I’m happy for Kevin Smith that he’s reached a point in his career where he can just think up any amount of dumb shit and make it for an audience that’ll eat it up, but this is the epitome of self-indulgence. ■

Tusk opens in theatres today