As low-budget, intentional schlock goes, Tusk fares better than Kevin Smith’s previous outing, Red State. Slightly. Both movies are meandering, jokey affairs, content to revolve around Michael Parks chewing scenery as he explains away the conceits behind his nightmarish actions rather than showing them. Tusk feels especially cheap: rooms are stage-lit, James Laxton often failing to incorporate ambient sources (lamps, candles, a fireplace) in his photography, treating them as mere set decoration. Howard Howe (Parks)–the loquacious madman who kidnaps and mutilates Justin Long’s podcaster jerk in an attempt to turn man into walrus–isn’t a tactile threat, creeping from his surroundings, but a theatrical performance, on display for our amusement.
Parks delivers hammy monologues, often about the horrible nature of mankind, laced with poetic and literary references. Insanity aside, Howard is a more erudite version of Randall from Clerks, quick with the snark whenever Wallace (Long, the Dante here, I suppose) says something crude. Smith sure is fascinated with him. Attempts at any filmmaking more complicated than a closeup or a wide shot are rare. During the trans-species operation, where Howard recounts abuses he suffered as an orphan, Smith cuts away to diagrams and medical instruments and amputated limbs, always coming back to Parks’ face. At its conclusion, Smith zooms out, feasting the eyes on the grotesque (yet silly) walrus-man Howard has created, Parks excitedly bellowing. Once Parks enters the film, he becomes the closest thing to a tether.
Elsewhere, Smith’s conservative direction stops the film dead. Dialogues give way to monologues give way to flashbacks of dialogues. A Celebrity Cameo (played by Johnny Depp) rambles in a bad impersonation of a French accent. A girlfriend (Genesis Rodríguez) tearfully laments Long’s descent into crass exploitation and infidelity (curiously, the only vile behavior of his not shown, even as she uses it to justify cheating on him). Haley Joel Osment lingers around the edges as a half-used subplot device. The only thing Smith can think of for these people is to fumble about with dick jokes and Canadian stereotypes. Horror and comedy are out of sync, as if from two completely different films.
The only throughline seems to be a general contempt for humanity shared with Howard. All the more baffling when Smith attempts to backpedal this theme in the third act, with a speech (of course) about crying making people better than animals. It’s a false note, though: Smith shows Long, flopping about in his lumpy walrus suit, tongue cut out, screaming like an animal. His friends are shocked upon discovering him. A shotgun is drawn, the mercy killing end of David Cronenberg’s The Fly come again. Cut to a year later, and Long is instead given an unnecessarily cruel fate. Ironically, this moment of (Intended? Hard to tell) narrative incompetence becomes the only funny part of Tusk.