Review: Kevin Smith’s ‘Tusk’ is more a step forward than a return to form

There are a number of surprises built into Kevin Smith's “Tusk,” not the least of which is that it is, all things considered, eminently watchable.

That's not faint praise, either. This is in many ways a ridiculous film, and well aware of itself. There are moments where you can practically hear Smith off-camera laughing at not just what's in front of the camera but also what's going to happen in the theater when people watch it. There is a glee to the filmmaking that is matched by a greater sense of control than I've seen from Smith before, and while I think the film is wildly uneven at times, I think that's also the point. I've always said that I grade a film based on how well I think it accomplishes what the filmmaker is trying to do, and in this case, I'd say Smith is fairly on his game.

Based on a particular episode of one of the eight million podcasts Smith produces these days, “Tusk” tells the story of Wallace (Justin Long), a podcaster who has built himself a small empire by making fun of people. His show, “The Not-See Party,” consists of many segments, but one of the hooks is that Wallace travels to meet various oddballs and weirdos, then comes back and tells their stories to Teddy (Haley Joel Osment), his best friend and co-host, since Teddy doesn't fly. Ally (Genesis Rodriguez), Wallace's girlfriend, thinks his show is too mean and getting meaner and that it's having an effect on Wallace. She sees it hardening him, and when he decides to go to Canada to interview “the Kill Bill kid,” a viral video star who cut off his own leg with a katana, she tells him flat out that she feels like he's crossing a line.

Once Wallace gets to Canada, though, plans shift and he ends up answering what sounds to him like a fascinating ad from an old man offering to share a lifetime's worth of adventure stories. Wallace can't resist, and he goes to the remote home of Howard Howe (Michael Parks) to do the interview.

Things go badly.

How much you want to know beyond that about story is entirely up to you. Without disclosing anything else, I can tell you that Long, Osment, Rodriguez and Parks are all very good in the film. They're doing everything Smith asks of them. Osment's not in a lot of the film, but he and Long have an easy chemistry as friends. Rodriguez has a lot more weight to carry in the film, and I think it's very strong work from her. Long has to go through a pretty serious evolution, both visually and emotionally, over the course of the film, and as usual, Long's really good at making things feel honest and real. He's got that always-strong comic timing of his, but he's also very credible when the film shifts gears and he's playing some darker material. It looks like it was a punishing part to play, and Long never seems anything less than 100% committed to whatever Smith throws at him.

Then there's Michael Parks. I may not be a fan of “Red State,” but I think Parks did exactly what Smith asked him to do in that film. The one note he hit in it was the one note that was written, and he hit it as well as any actor could have. Parks in general is a fairly remarkable actor. He makes fascinating choices in pretty much every performance I've seen him give. What Michael Parks does in “Tusk” elevates it in the way that Dennis Hopper elevates “Blue Velvet.” He made a decision about this character and how he was going to play him, and he steers into it in a way that is really something else. Whether you like how the character is written or not is one question, but watching Parks breathe life into it, he's doing some amazing things. Howard Howe is not what seems at first, and the more he reveals of who he truly is, the more you realize just how deep and rich Parks goes with character work. There's a scene where he's being questioned at one point by a homicide detective played by Guy LaPointe that has him playing basically an entirely different character. It's just Howard throwing the detective off the track, but Parks transforms so completely again that it underscores how much he's able to take the raw materials of himself and turn them into such radically different things.

Bonus points, by the way, for using the Fleetwood Mac song the way it should be used, as something creepy and messed up and sort of terrifying. I've never been able to fully articulate the first experience I ever had hearing that song, but I was young, it was when a babysitter was in the house, and it was dark. The sound of that song, the way it builds, the strange sonic landscape that's bubbling underneath the music, it all scared me then in some deep existential way, and I still think it's just plain unsettling.

So there. That's the short answer. You can go away spoiler free and happy now. Check the letter grade on your way out.

Let's put some spoiler space in so people don't see anything they want to see.

And now let's assume that if you're still reading, you're a grown-up who can handle whatever we're doing to discuss. A grown-up who could handle, for example, knowing the true identity of Guy LaPointe, the actor mentioned above, since that identity is worth discussion, as is the performance.

There was a moment in the film where the character appeared for the first time, about halfway through, and he starts talking to Teddy and Ally about his time tracking a serial killer who always amputates his victims' legs below the knee. From the second you see him, he's obviously wearing a disturbing fake nose of some sort. It took me about a minute and a half to realize that it was Johnny Depp that was speaking. They haven't really gone out of their way to hide his appearance, though. The make-up he's wearing is silly more than transformative, and his performance is as flat-out ridiculous as anything he's ever done. He is having a blast in the film, whether it's eating the grossest fast-food meal I've seen on film in a while to that scene I mentioned before, where he and Michael Parks talk about brown recluse spiders and missing hockey players. He also gets to play a scene with Lily-Rose Depp, his own daughter, and Harley Quinn Smith, and it's pretty clear from the scene why Smith and Depp would want to make something else teaming the two girls as these same characters. I've spilled a fair amount of ink on some of the more noxious of the mainstream Depp films, like “Alice In Wonderland” or “The Tourist,” but this is the Depp I like. Genuinely weird. Unconcerned with looking cool. When you see the film, stay to the very end of the credits, because Guy LaPointe has one final moment that made me laugh, as well.

I will also use this spoiler space to warn you that the film does get really weirdly grotesque. When I said before that things go badly for Wallace, that's an understatement. It turns out that Howe is a lunatic who lost his mind as a child and who has a very specific need that Wallace is meant to fill. He wants to turn Wallace into a human walrus. This involves amputations, surgeries, and a vicious round of conditioning, and the end result is revealed in a shot that will make most audiences audibly respond. It's that freakish, that deranged in both design and execution. If you're even remotely squeamish about that sort of thing, you're going to want to skip “Tusk,” because once it starts to go there, it really goes there. It would be wrong, though, to try to lump this in with what people kept insisting on calling “torture porn,” because Smith doesn't dwell on the procedure part. He's more interested in what it does to Wallace and in why Howe's doing it. The backstory to this particular perversion is oddly sad and damaged, and the more Howe talks about why he is who he is, the less he strikes me as evil and the more Smith paints him as a ruined person, someone who was so fucked up so early that he never had a chance, and his pathology makes a sort of horrifying sense.

That sadness is another tone that we haven't really seen Smith do before, and it suits the story being told. Christopher Drake's strong score should be a kick for anyone familiar with all of his excellent animated superhero work, and it may open some brand-new doors for him. James Laxton's photography isn't flashy, but it is way more controlled and appropriate than one might suspect based on Smith's track record.

I think even considering the film's short running time, there are some missteps, and the whipsaw tone of the film is going to really put some people off. But “Tusk” would seem to suggest that Kevin Smith has reconnected in some essential way with his love of filmmaking, and perhaps that he's even become a different person in those regards. If the premise itself puts you off, the film won't win you over, but Smith's faithful fans and audiences who are drawn in by the “WTF?!” premise are going to largely walk away feeling satiated. The reveal of Long's final form is reason enough to pay full-price. Here's hoping that as long as Smith is actually still making movies, he approaches them with this kind of energy, not burned flat and angry at the press or the Internet or anyone else.

“Tusk” opens in theaters September 19, 2014.