A24 via Everett Collection
There are two ways to look at Tusk. First, through the context of the Kevin Smith’s career: a return to the offbeat after a dissipation of his Gen X cred. The long-awaited redirection to genuine imagination that he exhibited in Dogma but never before or since. Perhaps even an autobiographical illustration of the probing qualms Smith might face as a result of his career choices and brand of comedy. If you have the pertinent knowledge and energy to afford Tusk your attention through these lenses, you’ll be granting it the favor of purpose. The movie is just a tad too lacking therein to function perfectly on its own terms.
Tusk seems to rely on your familiarity with the Smith story — as did each of the director’s View Askew pictures, though much more overtly — in order to access its journey in earnest. We “observe” shock jock podcasters Wallace (Justin Long) and Teddy (Haley Joel Osment, whose real world cult appeal is inscrutably wasted on such a bland role in such a bizarre movie) trading gags at the expense of the desperate and accident-prone YouTube sensations, but are welcomed just barely into the understanding of what kind of men they are in truth, why they find it so easy to be so cruel, and how they got to this point from the humble beginnings that Wallace’s girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) misses so terribly.
A24 via Everett Collection
So when we get to the weird part — the part we assume you must already know about by now — the emotional pulp is not readily available. Wallace’s visit to the Great White North lands him in the company of traveled gentleman Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a man whose nefarious intentions are as plain as the baculum on his mantelpiece. Once Wallace is in his possession, the movie derails to wild levels of body horror, black comedy, and garden-variety strangeness. The mood bounds up and down as we alternate attention between Howe’s demonic experimentations and Ally and Teddy’s quest to find their missing loved one. Along with the latter duo is a French Canadian detective straight out of a Jay Ward cartoon: Guy Lapointe, played quite endearingly by a heavily made-up Johnny Depp.
Although Depp’s late-in-film contribution is sure to muster a few eye rolls, he provides the necessary occasional respite from the sincerely upsetting Cronenbergian nightmare games going on in the lower levels of the Howe palace. Although we’re granted outright explanations of why what’s happening is happening, both in-universe and in regards to the narrative, we’re never beckoned far enough inward to experience what could be a haunting parable with any real intimacy.
Ultimately, Tusk winds up more interesting and enjoyable than not, landing closer to creative than commercial. But with too much confidence in the groundwork laid out by its writer and director’s familiar and vivid story, the film winds up a more vacant version of what it could, should, and wants to be.