The most remarkable thing about Tusk is how willfully awful it is. Kevin Smith’s latest ‘horror’ movie undermines every possibly effective moment with a terrible joke, a shitty reference or, most egregiously, a clearly addled Johnny Depp doing the worst work of a period of his career that will be forever remembered as his nadir. That Tusk is bad isn’t notable - it’s a Kevin Smith movie, and even his biggest fans now admit they grade him on a curve, happily giving each new odious film a participation medal - but that Tusk squanders a great performance and an actually intriguing central premise makes Tusk a true, legitimate contender for the worst film of the year.
It’s hard to know where to begin with Tusk’s badness, so let me start with what works. Michael Parks gives a thunderous, layered performance that is so good you almost believe its sheer quality will warp the film around it into goodness, like Neo making the hallway pulse at the end of The Matrix. It’s a great turn, and Parks takes a character who was clearly intended as a joke - an aging seaman who longs to return to the happiest period of his life, when he was shipwrecked on a rock with a big walrus - and infuses him with humanity, sadness, mania and pathos.
Watching Parks in this movie is like watching Laurence Olivier performing Shakespeare with a group of beshitted chimps, the old man standing noble and giving The Bard his all while right next to him an ape pisses in its own mouth. It’s a travesty, and it comes across almost like an attempt to humiliate Parks. If work of this quality won’t prompt Smith to elevate his craft, what will? What ever can?
The film is also well shot, although I may be grading on that Kevin Smith curve here. The titular monster - Justin Long transformed, through practical FX work, into a walrusman - is overlit to the point of ruination, but many of the other sequences, especially in Parks’ spooky old castle, are moody and even approach lovely.
That’s two good things. Here’s half a good thing: despite the fact that Kevin Smith clearly considers his own movie the cinematic equivalent of making the jerking off motion while telling a dumb story, he has somehow managed to find a compelling nugget around which to build his fortress of ineptitude. Parks kidnaps Justin Long, a podcaster who is even more irritating than any normal podcaster, and begins transforming him into a walrusman in honor of Mr. Tusk, the walrus that saved his life at sea many years ago. It sounds dumb, but it sort of works, and there’s a late film reveal (which I will respect) that actually adds some gravitas to the whole goofy concept. Yes, Tusk is a rip-off of Human Centipede, but it’s a rip-off with some interesting morsels of its own to offer.
And now I’ve run out of nice things to say. Justin Long is either terrible in the role of Wallace (clearly named that because it sounds like walrus and that’s funny to a fucking stoner) or is actually incredible in the part, which has been written to be the most hateable character on screen this year. I can’t be sure. Either way, every time Long was in a scene I was cringing and squirming, and the only reason why Wallace - an overly cocky, condescending, cheating, two-dimensional guy whose show sounds like a slightly more raunchy morning zoo garbage - isn’t the worst part of Tusk is because Johnny Depp shows up.
Depp, buried under make-up and an accent that sounds like Jerry Lewis doing Quebecois, appears and kills the movie. Dead. Just murders it. Depp places the movie’s open mouth on a curb and then viciously stomps on the back of its head. It’s possibly the worst thing I have seen from a major movie star in years; I’m reminded of the kind of broad, lazy work you’d get from washed up actors on 1970s variety and sketch shows, just rancid, bloated and pointless. Depp’s entire role feels like stuff that should have been left on the cutting room floor, just meandering improv that never stumbles anywhere near comedy. There’s one long, endless sequence with Parks and Depp talking on a porch that is possibly the worst thing that will play in cinemas this year, a scene of such massive incompetence that you begin to wonder if Kevin Smith simply felt obligated to use every minute of film on which Depp appeared.
There are a few sequences where Tusk is almost effective and almost creepy, but Smith skips all the real horror stuff to get to awkward slapstick and buffoonery. It’s a pathological mind at work - by the forty minute mark Smith sees that he could be about to make a real film and so he must self-sabotage with dumbness and poop jokes.
Anyone claiming Tusk is ‘fucked up’ or ‘weird’ has never seen a fucked up or weird movie. Having no control of tone isn’t ‘weird,’ it’s a lack of craftsmanship. The walrus suit doesn’t work because it’s overlit and overshot; rather than get the freaky, midnight movie vibe, Smith jumps right to a silly, sub-Sharknado vibe.
I hated Tusk, but I didn’t know true anger, actual fury, until the end of the credits. After the excellent, evocative score ends an episode of Smith’s podcast begins playing, and we realize that everything we just saw came from the stoned ramblings of some guy spouting random shit into a mic. If the movie had the shaggy nature of a stoner telling a tale, or the stark surreality of a blazed brain, I could apprecite it. But this clip of the podcast is sending one message, loud and clear: ‘We didn’t even try.’