I’m going to go out on a limb and call “Tusk” the greatest movie ever made about a deranged loner who tries to turn a human being into an animal. Not just the greatest one shot in the Charlotte region, which it was – though nothing but an airport parking deck was recognizable to me – but the best, period. I can’t see how “The Human Centipede,” where a loony mutilates and stitches tourists together to form a huge bug, could be better.
I can see how “Tusk” could have been better than it is. It could have been shorter and snappier (writer-director Kevin Smith has never known when to let go of a joke) and had a more effective ending. But Smith, who adapted a podcast he recorded with Scott Mosier, balances grisly horror and goofy humor adeptly most of the way.
The first half pulls us in, as odious podcaster Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) goes to Canada to meet a guy who cut off his own leg accidentally while re-enacting “Kill Bill.” He learns the poor fool has committed suicide and, looking for some other bizarre story, falls into the clutches of urbane raconteur Howard Howe (Michael Parks).
When Wallace realizes Howard intends to keep him a prisoner, he summons two friends from Los Angeles (Genesis Rodriguez and Haley Joel Osment) to help. They team up with Guy Lapointe (Johnny Depp), a disgraced cop from Quebec seeking a serial killer he believes to be Howe, and the movie slowly runs out of gas.
Parks, an actor who has seldom been used to best advantage over a 54-year career, adroitly speaks the most florid dialog and transitions effortlessly to a dim-witted rube when befuddling Lapointe. Wallace remains so rude and cruel that we side with Howard, even when we know he’s been cutting people up and attaching flippers and tusks to them. (The first sight of Long as a walrus is laugh-out-loud funny and also terrifying.)
Howe survived a 1959 shipwreck, he says, by pulling himself onto a rocky island for six months with only a walrus for company. He has been trying since to replicate that happy time, the only instance in life where he felt cared for. He’s loony but much more entertaining than his sneering victim.
Yet when the movie leaves his spooky home for the outside world, it stumbles. Depp, hidden behind prosthetic makeup and a shaky French-Canadian accent – he pronounces his own name different ways – makes the story unbelievable in the wrong manner: We can commit to the idea that a guy wants to create a human walrus, but not to the idea that this chowderhead could find him.
Depp’s inclusion smacks of self-indulgence: His daughter and Smith’s are pals (and play convenience store clerks here), and their dads became buddies. A more rigorous director would have found a better way to integrate Depp’s character into the story and cut his speeches, but Smith’s loyal to friends and family. His wife even turns up as a fast-food waitress.
If you stay through the credits, you’ll discover two things: Why Lapointe does something utterly improbable at the climax and how the story played out in the original Smith-Mosier podcast. It doesn’t seem to have changed much from Internet to screen. Smith took a funny, frightening but half-baked idea and simply didn’t bake it any longer.