By the time Kevin Smith's Cop Out tanked at the box office in 2010, his career was in dire need of reinvention. Having mined the "View Askewniverse" until it had all but collapsed in on itself, Smith had effectively become a victim of his own distinctive indie vision. He was obviously frustrated and foundering, as evidenced in his repeated and very public "threats" to retire from filmmaking. Then, in 2011, something unexpected happened. Turning his back on comedy for the first time in his career, Smith released the horror movie Red State. Despite dividing his loyal fan base and being largely panned by critics, the dark and topical thriller revealed him as a director with a wider range than most had given him credit for, as well as a previously untapped talent for building tension.
Three years later, Smith continues that trend with Tusk, a deliriously deranged horror comedy with a plot that sounds like it was written on a dare, and enough unhinged weirdness for three cult films. Love it or hate it, the director appears to have found his second wind.
Wallace (Justin Long) and Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) are the wisecracking cohosts of "The Not-See Party," a popular podcast focused on bizarre viral videos and humorous interviews with the Internet famous. The concept is simple: Wallace travels the country and films outlandish videos, and then returns to their makeshift studio to share his stories with Teddy and the listeners. When Wallace ventures to Canada for an interview that falls through at the last minute, he stops at a local bar for a drink and finds a flyer posted by an aged adventurer named Howard Howe (Michael Parks), who seeks to share his stories with anyone who will listen. Arriving at the old man's secluded estate under the shroud of darkness, Wallace is promptly treated to a hot cup of tea and a strange tale about being rescued by a walrus following a shipwreck at sea. It all seems like the perfect fodder for an unforgettable podcast -- that is, until Wallace blacks out and regains consciousness bound to a wheelchair. Meanwhile, as Teddy and Wallace's girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) travel north to investigate his sudden disappearance, the old man subjects his terrified guest to an unusual medical procedure that will transform more than just his perception of one of the sea's most majestic creatures.
Bizarre doesn't even begin to describe Smith's second foray into the "horror" genre. Drawing on his own experiences in podcasting with the popular "SModcast," Smith front-loads Tusk with the distinctively playful and profane dialogue that he has perfected over the years, while at the same time introducing us to the three protagonists. It's an effective tactic for ensuring that our guards remain lowered as Smith strives to build some dramatic tension among his young trio, but hold on to your seat -- once the story takes a hard turn into uncharted territory, things get very strange, very fast.
Previously relegated to supporting roles in most of the films he's appeared in, former Mac Computer Long steps into the lead with Tusk, and though his performance as a callous, self-absorbed podcaster is irreverent to the point of off-putting, that seems to be the goal as writer/director Smith folds a brief history of his career and personality into an innuendo-filled relationship talk. Yes, it feels like dramatic shorthand, but drama isn't exactly the focus here, and Long handles his duties with mustachioed bravado as Osment and Rodriguez head north and do their best to look concerned. But it hardly matters since this is Parks' show, and as the outwardly refined adventurer with a deeply warped agenda, it's impossible not to be transfixed as he weaves his incredible tale of survival at sea after being rescued by a walrus. Later, once his panicked young guest shifts into survival mode, Parks displays a lunacy worthy of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's legendary dinner scene. It's a gleefully psychotic performance, and it gives Tusk a boost of manic energy that continues until the you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it final confrontation. Unfortunately, that climax is interrupted by a surprising, scenery-chewing cameo that's more of a distraction than a playful detour; the director and his incognito player both seem a bit too self-enamored, and they allow a pair of superfluous scenes to go on for far longer than necessary.
Still, it's hard to get too irked, because Tusk's intense vibe largely translates to the audience. And this is, after all, a foulmouthed horror comedy about a crusty old psycho turning a young wiseass into a walrus. Yes, the production values here are polished to the point that this barely resembles the DIY comedies that Smith built his career on, but his typically snappy dialogue is still present, and his affection for the Great White North is made evident in a few key scenes featuring Long as your stereotypically boorish American.
Tusk is by definition a polarizing film -- factor Smith into the mix, and the arguments over its effectiveness are bound to be as slanted as they are heated. Despite this, if you're a cinema junkie with a taste for the deranged, you won't want to miss it. For everyone else, odds are you'll wish Smith had made good on his threat to quit when he had the chance.