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Dustin Putman

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Tusk  (2014)
3 Stars
Directed by Kevin Smith.
Cast: Justin Long, Michael Parks, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez, Johnny Depp, Harley Quinn Smith, Lily-Rose Melody Depp, Harley Morenstein, Ralph Garman, Harley Morenstein, Ashley Greene, Jennifer Schwalbach Smith.
2014 – 102 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for some disturbing violence/gore, language and sexual content).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 18, 2014.
Here is an origin story unlike any other. In June 2013, Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier recorded episode 259 of their SModcast podcast, titled "The Walrus and the Carpenter," wherein the reading of a personals ad from UK website Gumtree.com incited an impromptu spitballing session that led to the creation of a gonzo horror fable. The ad in question was supposedly submitted by a man in Brighton, England, seeking a lodger whom he would allow to stay with him for free under the condition that his new companion play the part of a walrus (complete with realistic costume) for two hours each day. Smith and Mosier were convinced this concept could easily be turned into a scary tale of madness and marine mammals, and over the next hour "Tusk" was born. As it ultimately turned out, the personals notice was a hoax written by writer/poet Chris Parkinson (who later was offered an associate producer credit), but by then it didn't matter; this experience got Smith's creative juices flowing, and little more than a year later the resulting motion picture has become the filmmaker's most imaginatively alive, brazenly electric film, to date.

As part of his job, hotshot Los Angeleno podcaster Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) travels around the continent interviewing—and, in a lot of cases, ridiculing—oddball characters that he and co-host Teddy Craft (Haley Joel Osment) find on the Internet. His latest assignment takes him up north to the Canadian city of Winnipeg, where he hopes to chat with a young guy who accidentally cut off his own limbs in an online video gone horribly awry. When Wallace arrives to the news that the injured boy has tragically committed suicide, he assumes his trip has been a wasted one. Drowning his sorrows at a local Manitoban bar, he stumbles upon a handwritten flyer in the restroom from a man claiming to have lived "a life of adventure with stories to tell." Wallace jumps at the chance to meet this mystery gentleman at his secluded Pippy Hill estate. The wheelchair-bound Howard Howe (Michael Parks) is eccentric for sure, but also fascinating, having once sailed with Ernest Hemingway and narrowly survived a shipwreck that left him stranded with only a single friend: a walrus he named Mr. Tusk. Howe misses his animal pal from all those decades ago and has never stopped trying to replicate this interspecies friendship with unsuspecting human subjects.

"Tusk" is deeply weird and spectacularly wonderful. Were it not for a few key narrative totems and the specific personality behind some of the dialogue, it would be impossible to guess that writer-director Kevin Smith is the mastermind behind the project. This is not a criticism, either, but a celebratory observation about an artist who continues to step outside of his comfort zone, take chances, and grow. Watching Smith's latest inspiring effort, it isn't difficult to understand why he has recently felt rejuvenated by the craft of moviemaking and the fertile new directions he is capable of mining. Some have compared the general plot conceit as a variation on 2010's "The Human Centipede (First Sequence)," but to dismissively describe "Tusk" in this way is to not understand how much brave, gleeful strangeness and striking sense of character and vision have been brought to this deviously lurid, satirically cutting production. Any time the viewer thinks it cannot possibly be heading in a certain direction, it does—then audaciously surpasses those expectations.

It is a testament to how unthinkably awful Wallace's fate is about to become that a character as arrogant and exploitive as he is able to gain not only the audience's sympathies, but also their genuine concern. The naturally appealing Justin Long (2012's "10 Years") does strong, grueling work as Wallace, a former nerd whose success with his Not-See Party podcast has left him with an inflated ego. His superiority complex and xenophobic actions are in full force as he roams Canada, aping the residents' accents and describing the country to Mr. Howe as a "frozen shithole." He wasn't always the guy he is now, and girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) makes it very clear before he leaves for his trip that she misses the old Wallace. At this point in time, she has no way of knowing just how different he is about to become.

As the crazed, controlled, sociopathic Howard Howe, Michael Parks (who seems to have become Smith's understandable muse and lucky charm since 2011's "Red State") unleashes a performance of unforgettably chilling verisimilitude. His character is either much more than just a villain, or so brilliantly portrayed that he simply puts to shame most standard-issue cinematic baddies. Ingratiating at first, his friendly, if off-kilter, demeanor cloaks a nefarious, lonely madman who will do whatever he must—lie, manipulate, ultimately threaten—to wrap his prey in his delirious spider-like web. Mr. Howe's lair—a voluminous wooden mansion with an underground dungeon/walrus enclave—is a divinely atmospheric embodiment of indispensable art direction and production design, while Robert Kurtzman's Oscar-worthy makeup is an unimaginably bizarre tour de force.

Usually saddled with disposable supporting parts, Genesis Rodriguez (2013's "Identity Thief") has rarely, if ever, had a big-screen role that has demanded the breadth of emotion and depth that Ally does. Seeing her here is like seeing her for the first time. As it turns out, she is an exquisite actor, the uninhibited dramatic areas she delves into close to stunning as her character struggles over the guilt of falling in love with her beau's partner/friend Teddy. Haley Joel Osment (2014's "I'll Follow You Down"), meanwhile, exhibits an irresistibly warm, captivating presence as Teddy. Osment's is a low-key turn that may be overlooked next to the colorful players around him, but, along with Rodriguez, stands as the beacon of levity and heart this unorthodox story requires.

At around the midway point, Ally and Teddy receive ominous voicemails that take them to Winnipeg in search of the missing Wallace. They seek the aid of homicide detective Guy LaPointe (Johnny Depp) as they attempt to retrace his steps, and into the scenery chews a prosthetics-heavy, virtually unrecognizable Johnny Depp (2014's "Transcendence"). Living up to his mastery of essaying oddball characters, Depp is consistently unpredictable and having obvious fun with his Canuck accent, even if his scenes are the few that could have used a little tightening in the final edit. Finally, Harley Quinn Smith (Kevin's daughter) and Lily-Rose Melody Depp (Johnny's daughter) pop up as terminally unimpressed teenage store clerks, their characters intended to be spun off into Smith's next film—the second in his proposed "True North Trilogy"—called "Yoga Hosers."

Most movies play out for two hours and then basically evaporate from the minds of viewers who proceed to go about their everyday existences. "Tusk" endures, percolating in one's synapses, growing all the better and all the more haunting with each passing day. Diabolical, amusing, singularly unnerving and unexpectedly tender, the film finds humanity in the bleakest of situations and a playful spirit in its macabre aura. James Layton's (2011's "The Myth of the American Sleepover") cinematography mesmerizes, taking advantage of its broodingly fanciful shooting locations and an immersive flair for crane shots, zooms and slow, methodical pull-outs. As for Fleetwood Mac's 1979 song "Tusk," its ingenious use during a key climactic set-piece is nothing short of momentous. Following through with a ballsy, bittersweet ending as out-there as what has gone before, "Tusk" thrillingly, inventively lives up to the mystique of its conceptual birth. With Kevin Smith once again moving full throttle ahead with indie-spirited passion projects, it is an exciting proposition waiting to see what he'll dream up next.
© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman