It’s might be hard to grasp, given how much of his movies are composed of inactive camerawork and marginal production design, just how much of a true filmmaker Kevin Smith really is. He’s a storyteller at heart. While some of his more recent material has been marginal, this is a man whose 1994 debut feature “Clerks” literally remapped the landscape of independent cinema, and whose easily identifiable style, steeped in long stretches of breezy conversation spiked liberally with pop culture references, would be the backbone of mini-classics like “Chasing Amy” and “Dogma.” Smith’s last movie, the controversial horror film “Red State” felt like a return to form. It wasn’t dazzling, exactly, but it felt like the work of a storyteller stretching beyond his comfort zone, into something weird and altogether compelling. “Tusk,” his follow-up to “Red State,” continues this trend, with even woollier results, while simultaneously acting as a deconstruction of the nature of stories, by a man who seemingly can’t stop telling them.
It’s interesting to note that “Tusk” is Smith’s first film since 2011, and what he’s been doing with most of that time is hosting a series of radio shows on his vast podcast network, as well as doing live spoken word performances all over the world. This is a man whose every thought, idea or anecdote is beamed out across invisible airwaves and over the Internet to whoever wants to listen. It’s also worth noting that “Tusk” is actually an extension of a podcast from June of last year, where Smith and his co-host Scott Mosier discussed a bizarre online personal ad (the ad was later attributed to a British hoaxer Chris Parkinson, who serves as an associate producer on the movie).
In “Tusk,” Justin Long plays a podcaster named Wally who travels around the country to interview colorful characters for a radio show called The Not-See Party. He describes these encounters to his best friend and co-host (Haley Joel Osment), who then has to decide whether or not the stories are real or wholly made up. After traveling to Canada to meet a minor Internet celebrity who gained fame for accidentally chopping off his own leg with a samurai sword (a nod to Smith’s pal and fellow indie trailblazer Quentin Tarantino), who has unknowingly taken his own life in the interim, Wally finds himself in desperate need of a story and finds one when he gazes upon a strange personal ad placed by an old sailor (Michael Parks) looking for someone to spend time in his creaky old mansion. Wally goes to visit the old timer and winds up with a whole lot more than he bargained for. We’re not trying to be cagey; the less you know about the plot specifics, the better the WTF-worthy payoff is.
This is a spooky story, to be sure, the kind of thing that you are more likely to hear told around a campfire than on a podcast, and there are some moments where Smith is able to build tension and horror in sharp, interesting ways. (He also isn’t above borrowing a couple of tricks from Tarantino, too, including a couple of well-placed, seventies-era snap zooms.) It would be easy to compare “Tusk” to the early “body horror” films of Canadian director David Cronenberg, or, more recently, some gross-out farce like “The Human Centipede,” but neither is really appropriate. Smith doesn’t have the same kind of joyful appreciation for things that squirt, ooze and bleed. This is a horror film, for sure, with some gross and disturbing moments, but Smith is too squeamish, he doesn’t luxuriate in carnage.
The movie, too, takes on a wildly different tone when, around the third act, a wholly unrecognizable Johnny Depp is introduced as a gonzo French-Canadian detective named Guy LaPointe, who teams up with Wally’s co-host and girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) to track him down. With Depp’s entrance, what had been a relatively straightforward horror film is turned on its head. It’s undoubtedly the best, most off-the-wall performance Depp has given in ages, the kind of actorly feat that is so out there that it borders on the hypnotic. Depp, with little more than some well-placed prosthetics and a goofy French-Canadian accent, makes “Tusk” infinitely weirder.
Throughout “Tusk,” there are characters telling stories. They tell stories to each other, to themselves, to countless listeners over the Internet, and it’s this idea that is at the heart of the film. Smith talks, endlessly, about a whole variety of topics (although favorites include women and comic books), and has filled movies with characters who do the same. But he’s never investigated the mechanism of storytelling, the visceral way that stories can bring you into another world, to the point that you can totally lose track of who you actually are. It’s not a coincidence that when Wally shows up to the house of the old sailor, he’s intoxicated, both literally and figuratively, by the old man’s words. Depp’s character is introduced the same way, with a longwinded monologue that effectively changes the shape of the entire movie.
And it’s a thrill to watch Smith play like this. The movie is funny and scary and odd, and Smith makes a genuine effort to provide scares, going further than you’d ever expect him to in an effort to establish mood and tone (yes, he even moves the camera a few times.). Smith has always worked well with actors, and “Tusk” is no different. Long does a fine job as the podcaster, and Parks, who Smith showcased beautifully in “Red State,” gets to create a wholly original character here. He’s a psychopathic, seafaring dandy, one who is both inclined to quote from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and take up the kind of needlework Leatherface was fond of. It’s unlike anything Parks has ever done before, and it’s a huge rush just to watch him work. Nobody chews scenery quite like Michael Parks. It’s just a shame that, while there are definitely some moments that make your skin crawl, Smith didn’t have a better grasp on the scarier elements of the script. It’s offbeat tone is its biggest asset and some hardened genre fans will surely complain is its biggest weakness. Those wanting wall-to-wall shocks should inquire elsewhere.
“Tusk” is being marketed as a “truly transformative tale,” and by the end of the movie’s briskly paced 102 minutes, you’ll feel that it’s Smith who has been reinvented most of all. He’s using his skill set in a different genre, with a different agenda altogether, combining autobiographical elements, spooky late-night B-movie influences and a deeper thematic exploration of the nature of storytelling, to create something wholly unique and twisted. “Tusk” will be a lot of things to a lot of people (and we expect the reaction to the film to run the gamut from rapturous adoration to repulsed indifference), but at it’s best, “Tusk” is outlandishly unforgettable.