'Tusk': Toronto Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A cult-ready oddity anchored by Michael Parks's inspired performance

Kevin Smith turns Justin Long into a walrus in his new horror comedy

A horror-comedy about a serial killer who turns his victims into walruses before they die, Tusk is what one gets now that Kevin Smith has reached, as he joked as he introduced the premiere, the "point in my career where I don't give a f— anymore." Plotted out on the spot during a feat of podcast improvisation with partner Scott Moser (and allegedly inspired by an actual personals ad), the picture is deeply weird, with an entrancement factor almost entirely dependent on the performance of Michael Parks, who reteams with the director after appearing in 2011's Red State. While a shifting focus toward other characters dilutes the pleasure in the second half, the often funny film will please the director's devoted fan base and win over some schlock-horror lovers who may have little time for the Clerks universe. With actual distribution via A24 as opposed to Red State's DIY model, it might actually make a little money as well.

Justin Long and Haley Joel Osment play the hosts of a high-energy, hyuck-hyuck podcast that exists mostly to make fun of people they find on the Internet. When Long's Wallace travels to Winnipeg to interview one of them, only to learn he has died, he thinks this quest for human oddity has been a waste of money. Then he sees a bulletin-board ad for a room for rent, whose flowery prose commands his attention. He drives two hours into the country, to a gated estate called Pippy Hill, to meet the author.

Howard Howe (Parks) is now stuck in a wheelchair, but has led an incredible life. While self-obsessed, boorish Wallace makes himself at home among the treasured mementos from Howe's travels — "You're a rapscallion of the highest order," his host teases him — Howe speaks in full, articulate paragraphs about "my many adventures." The character is a fruitful new vehicle for the witty logorrhea Smith is known for, sounding not a bit like his convenience-store wiseacres but holding us rapt with a similar conviction; Parks is not just commanding in his delivery, but makes the most of the character's sudden mood swings. While Howe speaks, the drugs he put in Wallace's tea knock him unconscious.

Things get weird when Wallace wakes up. In a very funny sequence in which Howe is full of lies, the film seems to be becoming Smith's version of Misery — with the podcaster trapped in the house of an attentive host, his leg amputated to save him from a brown recluse bite he doesn't remember. Eventually the truth comes out: Howe's happiest days happened decades ago, when he nearly died alone at sea and was befriended by a walrus he named Mr. Tusk. Howe intends to turn Wallace into a new Mr. Tusk. And thanks to Frankensteiny effects work by Walking Dead vet Robert Kurtzman, he does just that.

During Wallace's captivity, Smith offers flashbacks and cutaways explaining what a cad he has become with his adoring girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) and revealing that she has started an affair with Osment's Teddy. But the two fly to Canada when they get desperate voicemails from Wallace, following his trail with the help of an eccentric detective: Johnny Depp, who wears some minor prosthetics and is credited in the film as Guy LaPointe, chews scenery as a kind of French-Canadian Columbo, with a lazy eye and a bit of a drinking problem. The extended cameo sounds delightful on paper, but the performance is as uninspired by Depp's standards as Long's performance, both pre- and post-walrusification, is animated by his.

The movie flags somewhat during their manhunt; though we get some laughs, the joke is starting to wear thin. Back in the dungeon, where Howe is training Wallace the Walrus to accept his new form, viewers may find themselves starting to take his bizarre fetish seriously. (Smith bolsters the lunatic's psychohistory with a black-and-white flashback that, this being Manitoba, plays almost like an homage to Guy Maddin.) As he learns to eat whole raw fish, move with his new flippers, and express himself without a tongue, this man who once lived on his silver-tongued sarcasm must now answer Tusk's burning question: "Is man indeed a walrus at heart?"

Production company: Demarest Films
Cast: Michael Parks, Justin Long, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez, Johnny Depp
Director-screenwriter-editor: Kevin Smith
Producers: Shannon McIntosh, Sam Englebardt, William D. Johnson, David S. Greathouse
Executive producers: Jennifer Schwalbach, Nate Bolotin, Nick Spicer
Director of photography: James R. Laxton
Production designer: John D. Kretschmer
Costume designer: Maya Lieberman
Music: Christopher Drake

Rated R, 102 minutes