Toronto Film Review: ‘Tusk’

Tusk Toronto Film Festival

Kevin Smith traces the fine line between man and beast in a bizarro midnight movie built around a career-crowning performance from the great Michael Parks.

“I am walrus, hear me blubber” might be the mantra of Kevin Smith’s “Tusk,” an utterly bizarre, weirdly compelling story of manimal love that stakes out its own brazen path somewhere between “The Fly” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” And yet there’s much good humor, too, in Smith’s latest low-budget indie, which reunites the director with his “Red State” star Michael Parks, who’s gifted here with the sort of tailor-made, career-capping role most actors die waiting for Quentin Tarantino to give them. He’d be worth the price of admission alone, but “Tusk” has other surprises up its pelt, including a pseudonymous special guest star who gives the movie a shot in the arm just when it needs one. Twenty years on from “Clerks” — and amid occasional threats of retirement — Smith has delivered a left-field surprise that ranks among his very best work, though how such an oddity plays in today’s marketplace (where innovative distrib A24 releases it Sept. 19) is anybody’s guess.

The 74-year-old Parks has played in more than 100 films and TV shows (including several by Tarantino) over a 50-year career, but he’s never had a part quite like the one Smith has concocted for him — one that plays knowingly off the actor’s own status as a veteran farer of the turbulent Hollywood seas, a go-to second lead and character player who never quite cracked the A-list. In “Tusk,” he’s Howard Howe (or so he claims), a real-life ancient mariner with a lifetime of strange adventures behind him and many tall but true tales to tell.

That proves an irresistible invitation to Wallace (Justin Long), one half of a popular Los Angeles podcasting duo, who’s traveled to the wilds of Winnipeg for an exclusive interview with a flavor-of-the-month YouTube star (“He turned down Oprah!”) who, unfortunately, turns out to be literally dead on arrival. Scrambling for a backup plan, Wallace catches sight of a room-for-rent ad bearing a digest of Howe’s intriguing bio, and so sets off to meet the well-traveled mystery man, who in turn sits waiting for him with the practiced patience of the spider waiting for the fly.

Parks has such light in his eyes, fire in his belly and a mellifluous purr in his voice that it would probably be a pleasure to watch him recite the Manitoba phone book, but Smith (who adapted the film from a story he first conceived with longtime collaborator Scott Mosier on an episode of their own weekly podcast series) supplies him with considerably richer fare. Rolling about his cavernous manor — tucked, naturally, just far enough back from the main road to diminish any screams — the wheelchair-bound old man holds his visitor rapt in his raconteur’s spell, each story bearing a talismanic connection to the objects that line Howe’s shelves and mantles: a whisky bottle that belonged to Ernest Hemingway here; a large walrus baculum there. That last item triggers a harrowing memory of shipwreck and survival at sea, in which the young Howe found his life saved by a less likely companion than the giant tiger from “Life of Pi”: a compassionate walrus he nicknamed Mr. Tusk, and whose eventual loss he grieves to this day.

Well, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and it soon become clear that Howe’s five-decade estrangement from Mr. Tusk has him hankering for a reunion — one that Wallace might just be able to facilitate. And that, really, is all one should know before seeing “Tusk,” in which the more the reels tick by, the clearer Howe’s designs on Wallace become, until the avuncular recluse stands revealed as some unholy hybrid of Victor Frankenstein and Josef Mengele. (Though it’s part of the complexity of Parks’ performance that he always makes Howe seem more than an outright monster, a man who believes he’s acting from a place of love and mercy.)

Meanwhile, back in L.A., Wallace’s broadcasting partner Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) and girlfriend Allison (Genesis Rodriguez) get wind that something is awry and set off on a rescue mission, eventually joining forces with a weary but unfailingly polite Surete du Quebec detective named Guy Lapointe, who’s been tracking Howe for years and offers valuable insight into the man’s peculiar m.o. Lapointe is the movie’s other inspired creation, played fastidiously and with great, sly humor by a Hollywood chameleon (credited only as Guy Lapointe) who hasn’t seemed this playfully engaged in a role in many a tentpole. Osment, too, is very effective as the caring but not entirely loyal friend, as is relative newcomer Rodriguez as the semi-neglected s.o., all of which keeps the pace up during what could have been dreary procedural interludes.

But “Tusk” unquestionably belongs to Parks, and to Long, who seems at first to be cast in a mild variation on his well-traveled, shit-eating-grin-hipster persona, but who ends up having the most emotionally and physically demanding role of his career — one that, for reasons which become clear as the movie progresses, restricts him from using many of an actor’s usual expressive tools. To put it in the movie’s own, inimitable terms, he goes “full walrus” and then some, building to a finale that’s sincerely touching in a way no one watching a movie with this plot would have any justifiable reason to suspect.

Although we’re a long way here from the View Askewniverse of Red Bank, N.J., “Tusk” runs thick with the director’s house blend of highbrow literary references, lowbrow bathroom humor and fast-food fetishism. As in “Red State,” Smith opts for a sleek widescreen look (courtesy of d.p. James Laxton), with far more attention paid to framing and fluid, motivated camera movements than on his rough-hewn early features. Makeup designer Robert Kurtzman’s impressively transformative practical effects are virtually a co-star unto themselves.

Toronto Film Review: 'Tusk'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Midnight Madness), September 6, 2013. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 101 MIN.

Production

An A24 release presented with Demarest Films of a Demarest Films production in association with XYZ Films and SModcast Pictures. (International sales: XYZ Films, Los Angeles.) Produced by Shannon McIntosh, Sam Englebardt, William D. Johnson, David S. Greathouse. Executive producers, Jennifer Schwalbach, Nate Bolotin, Nick Spicer.

Crew

Directed, written by Kevin Smith, from the podcast “SModcast #259: The Walrus & the Carpenter,” starring Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier. Camera (color, widescreen), James R. Laxton; editor, Smith; music, Christopher Drake; music supervisor, Jason Ruder; production designer, John D. Kretschmer; set decorator, Luci Wilson; set designer, Stephan Beck; costume designer, Maya Lieberman; sound, Larry Long; sound designer/re-recording mixer, Joel Dougherty; visual effects supervisor, David Altenau; visual effects producer, Tim Jacobsen; visual effects, Fuse FX; special makeup effects, Robert Kurtzman; special effects supervisor, Larry Bivins; stunt coordinators, Dino Mucci, Cal Johnson; line producer, Jenny Hinkey; associate producers, Jason Mewes, Jordan Monsanto, Chris Parkinson; assistant director, Alisa Fredericks.

With

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

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  1. Every weekend i used to visit this website, for the reason that i want enjoyment, since this this web page conations really
    good funny data too.

  2. Amy Schuknecht says:

    This movie is absolutely horrible. I wish I could get back the 2 hours of my life I spent watching this garbage. So unrealistic it’s stupid. Do not recommend wasting your time or money on this movie. This should get -5 stars!!! The images that are left in my head are nauseating!!

  3. Donna Copman says:

    Haven’t seen Tusk yet but I plan to! I never miss Michael Parks in anything. I discovered him back in 1965 when he was playing Fargo in a beautiful film called Wild Seed. He was a handsome, sexy , brilliant actor. I own the movie and watch it repeatedly. I’m so thrilled that Michael is still a star at age 74. I just wish that, for his swan song, he could play his handsome self, connecting with a woman – yes. Something romantic. Maybe he’d rather not, maybe he would rather stay in this genre that Smith and Tarantino have helped him achieve. He’s a brilliant actor and one who should have had this type of publicity ALL ALONG. That voice…… Sexy as hell.

  4. Tim says:

    Jesus Christ, seriously??!! You ever f&cking heard of the term “spoiler alert”??

    • Tim says:

      I apologize for being such a butthurt douchebag. I still stand by what I said, but I’m sorry for acting like such a jerkoff about it :P …..Peace

  5. Joee says:

    Thrilled to see a review! I was so excited to see this film already, and even more so now. I am lost on half of your fancy-dancy wording, though. I muddled through, but really. Put the thesaurus down. It’s a movie review, not a historical opera.

  6. Allex q says:

    The mystery actor is Johnny Depp. It was actually revealed online a week ago and by Kevin a Smith himself a couple days later.

  7. stevenmillan says:

    Like most modern genre filmmakers(Quentin Tarantino,Rob Zombie,Eli Roth),Kevin Smith is pretty much hit-and-miss for me,with his first genre outing RED STATE badly affected by its turn as an ATF assault/stand-off drama in its second half(despite Michael Parks’ strongly inspiring performance),for TUSK sounds like a complete 375 turn in Smith’s filmmaking career(and career direction and sounds like one genre film that’s both heavily intriguing and worth seeing(especially in knowing which exact actor is playing[and credited as] that fellow named Guy).

  8. Thanks for finally writing about >Tusk Review: Kevin Smith Spins a Strangely Compelling Tale of Manimal Love | Variety <Loved it!

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  10. Reblogged this on HORROR BOOM and commented:
    Although we’re a long way here from the View Askewniverse of Red Bank, New Jersey, “Tusk” runs thick with the director’s house blend of highbrow literary references, lowbrow bathroom humor and fast-food fetishism. As in “Red State,” Smith opts for a sleek widescreen look (courtesy of d.p. James Laxton), with far more attention paid to framing and fluid, motivated camera movements than on his rough-hewn early features. Makeup designer Robert Kurtzman’s impressively transformative practical effects are virtually a co-star unto themselves.
    -From Variety’s review of Kevin Smith’s “Tusk”
    We wanted to see this before, but now we REALLY want to see it. Yes, BRING IT! Any guesses on the mystery actor? We’re off to scour the internet, because we doubt we can wait under September 19th! Cick “View Original” in the lower left to read Variety’s entire review by Scott Foundas, Chief Film Critic for Variety.

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