What with filmmakers catering more and more to the geek community by way of post-credit Easter eggs, obscure continuity nods, and incessant pop culture references, I suppose it was only a matter of time before we came to this: a motion picture that only makes sense if you follow the writer-director on social media. You see, Tusk started out as a want ad for a roommate willing to dress as a walrus, which sparked an inebriated ramble on Kevin Smith’s podcast, which, in turn, lead to a full-fledged theatrical production, owing to legions of fans tweeting “#WalrusYes”. Of course, I didn’t know any of this, so I came to the screening naively expecting a horror flick instead of a landmark in navel-gazing irony.
As such, I waited patiently when Tusk introduced its jerk of a main character, Wallace (Justin Long), who flies to Manitoba for a mean-spirited podcast interview; I felt the tension rise when the mysterious Howard (Michael Parks) lured him with methodically paced tall tales, like Montresor in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”; I got curious when flashbacks showed love interest Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) and best friend Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) betray our protagonist for past indiscretions; and I nearly threw up when the latter got turned into a walrus by way of gruesome surgery à la Human Centipede (2009).
Unfortunately, Tusk goes on another hour as Ally and Teddy race to find Wallace, even though Smith has already shown us it’s too late. Sure, we occasionally cut back to Howard coercing his new walrus into acting the part, thereby putting our protagonist’s sanity at stake, but the sheer absurdity of the situation kills any potential for resonance. In fact, I might have walked out if not for Michael Parks’ mesmerising performance. Come to think of it, the entire cast does a commendable job, save for Johnny Depp, who takes ham to the next level with his depiction of French Canadian detective Guy Lapointe as an incompetent, uneducated, lazy, loudmouth, tactless, selfish, misogynistic moron.
If I didn’t know any better (which I don’t), I’d say Smith has a major axe to grind against la belle province. Consider his arbitrary reference to the Duplessis orphans, which adds insult to injury by implying psychopathic tendencies amid the victims, or the undecipherable flashback conversation between Howard and Guy, wherein Parks and Depp babble like senile old men because, ho-ho, Quebecers sound “retarded” with their accent! Setting aside how the family of a mentally challenged person might feel watching this scene in Tusk, it seems to me French and English Canadians have a complicated enough relationship without Americans throwing their ugly rhetoric into the mix.
Faced with all this vitriolic nonsense, I began to scrutinise every frame for deeper meaning. After all, Smith is known for putting himself in his work, so it’s conceivable for Wallace, a slave to his audience both as a podcast host and a man-made monstrosity, to represent the auteur’s ambivalence toward his own Internet celebrity. By the same token, the walrus seems a disturbing choice of animal for a director so outspoken about his weight. Does that make Howard his creative drive: a demented captor and endless source of stories? Could the sadistic farce in Tusk be directed at the filmmaker himself?
The joke, of course, turns out at my expense. During the credits, an excerpt of Smith’s podcast reveals that Tusk was conceived as a parody of self-important horror flicks, that none of it should be taken seriously, and that I’d just wasted two hours of my life trying to engage with a story designed to alienate me. For those of you eager to listen to the full recording, the tale of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” can be found in episode 259 of the Smodcast, but be warned: it spoils the entire film right down to its final shot, which expects us to believe Canadians are unaware of plastic surgery, leave the mentally ill to their own devices, and expect a man to survive naked in the cold without help or supervision.
Yes, I realise it all plays into the humour inherent to the concept, but here’s the thing: even knowing what I know now, I still dislike the movie because it makes for a piss-poor adaptation of “The Walrus and the Carpenter”. The latter worked as a ridiculous but genuinely funny digression centered on the absurdity of its own premise. Tusk, in contrast, holds cruelty as its focal gag. It assumes we’ll laugh at Wallace’s suffering, at Depp’s disdainful stereotypes, and at anyone who dares to pay for an admission ticket without first visiting Smith’s website. The whole thing feels hateful, pure and simple, as one might expect from a production that can’t tell the difference between geek entertainment and geek show.