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D: Kevin Smith / 102m

Cast: Michael Parks, Justin Long, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez, Guy Lapointe

Popular podcast hosts Wallace Bryton (Long) and Teddy Craft (Osment) have built up their following by finding videos of people doing stupid and/or humiliating things and re-broadcasting them. When they find a video of a young Canadian whose swordplay proves disastrous, Wallace determines to follow it up by meeting him. His girlfriend, Ally (Rodriguez), wants to go with him but he dissuades her. When Wallace arrives in Manitoba, though, he finds the story is a dead end. Later that night in a bar, he comes across a flyer from someone offering free lodging in return for listening to a lifetime of interesting stories. Intrigued, Wallace calls the man, Howard Howe (Parks) and arranges to meet him where he lives.

Their initial meeting goes well. Howe does indeed have some remarkable stories to tell, and Wallace is fascinated by them. Howe’s home is also full of mementoes and keepsakes from his travels. But as he begins to tell Wallace about the time he was stranded on a small Russian island with only a walrus for company, the podcaster begins to feel tired. Soon he passes out. When he comes to he finds himself in a wheelchair and very groggy. Howe explains that Wallace was bitten by a poisonous spider – which caused him to pass out – but he’s been seen by a doctor, though in order to stop the poison from spreading, Wallace’s left leg has been removed below the knee.

Wallace soon learns that the story of the spider is untrue, and that Howe has plans for Wallace that involve transforming him into a walrus. Wallace manages to call both Ally and Teddy but his calls go to voicemail. Howe finds out what he’s doing, and so speeds up his plan. The next morning, Ally and Teddy find Wallace’s calls and head for Manitoba. When they get there they find there is little evidence to go on, but the local police put them in touch with an ex-detective of the Sûreté du Québec, Guy Lapointe. Lapointe has been chasing a serial killer who’s been responsible for dismembering and mutilating young men for years, twenty-three in total. Together, he, Ally and Teddy trace Wallace’s journey from Manitoba to Howe’s home. But will they be in time to save Wallace from an awful fate?

Tusk - scene

The last few years have seen writer/director Kevin Smith broaden his cinematic horizons away from his New Jersey roots – and the dialogue heavy movies he made there – to incorporate ideas and places far removed from the kind of movies we’ve become used to. Cop Out (2010) was a serious misstep, working from someone else’s script and having no real feel for the material; in many ways it looked like a movie made by someone who didn’t give a toss (it also has one of the most embarrassing tag lines ever: “Rock out with your Glock out”). Red State (2011) was a better choice of material but was too unsure of what it wanted to be to be entirely successful. Now, with Tusk, Smith returns with a more focused, more accessible movie, but one which also has its fair share of needless longueurs.

Using Long and Osment as on screen versions of himself and long-time producer/friend Scott Mosier, Smith opens the movie with a podcast that recreates the vibe of his own podcasts: funny, irreverent, and with a healthy disdain for “holding back” (the video they show is both predictable and yet shocking at the same time). It sets up Wallace as a bit of a horrible jerk, something that is confirmed later on when we learn that he doesn’t want Ally to go on trips with him because it cuts down on his opportunities to get some “road head”. He’s not a likeable guy, but as he tells Ally, he’s the new Wallace, whereas the old, pre-podcast Wallace was a loser. It’s a neat trick on Smith’s part, that the object of a painful physical transformation has already undergone a mental one, and it’s this that will (hopefully) see him through his ordeal. Long makes Wallace objectionable and crass in his dealings with others, but this makes it difficult for the audience to fully sympathise with him when Howe’s plan swings into action. It’s a measure of Smith’s confidence as a director, and Long’s performance, that this hesitancy doesn’t undercut the movie’s effectiveness, and instead, adds to the tension.

However, with the introduction of Lapointe, Smith scuppers both the momentum he’s built up up to that point, and a large portion of the goodwill the movie needs to keep the audience with it (it’s a far-fetched tale requiring a healthy dose of acceptance, especially in the later stages). Lapointe is played by a very well known actor who is simply credited as Guy Lapointe, but it’s a mannered caricature of a performance that stops the movie cold and ruins the tone completely. Lapointe is in many ways the comic relief, but it’s an extended turn that doesn’t work and includes an awkward flashback that adds little to the movie other than the chance to see Parks play old and bordering on senile (as opposed to old and way past disturbed).

Parks is on fine form, his verbose dialogue made into polite expressions of personal experience in his opening scenes with Long, and then given a more florid, cod-Shakespearean approach once his plan is under way. It’s an operatic performance in many ways, and leans toward tragedy by the end, but Parks is quietly, authoritatively magnificent in a role that could so easily have descended into high farce (especially when Smith’s script skirts it quite often). In support, Osment has a subdued role that doesn’t allow him to stretch as an actor, while Rodriguez gets to emote to camera but with very little reason for her to be doing so.

Tusk is an odd little movie that will likely divide audiences, and in certain quarters will find itself the object of unintentional laughter, but the nature of the story is such that this is unavoidable. Like many of Smith’s movies it’s not the most visually compelling of projects to watch, and the score by Christopher Drake doesn’t highlight the drama as well as it could have done, often feeling perfunctory rather than part of the movie’s fabric. However, in the editor’s chair, Smith really shows his strengths – the sequence with Guy Lapointe in the diner aside – and he makes good use of long shots to evoke menace (Howe walking the length of the dining table to see to Wallace’s cries for help is a great example).

Rating: 7/10 – with often superb dialogue that any actor would relish delivering, and a sense of the truly macabre that most horror movies can’t even fake properly, Tusk sees Smith on fine form; this may well turn out to be a future cult movie, while its scenes of Cronenberg-style body horror are grim and uncompromising to watch.