Is Man A Beast At Heart? Kevin Smith's Tusk Is Both Outlandish And Personal

By Dylan Gonzales

My entry into the Kevin Smith fandom began during my final years in high school.  I was in my teens and on the verge of moving on from high school to college.  Kevin Smith's first batch of films helped me battle some of the stresses of post-high school life and well into my college career.  I wrote papers on Dogma and Smith himself.  I joined his ball hockey league and attended a good number of Q-and-A's and live podcasts.  I even managed to give the man a peck on the cheek after pitching him a question at one of his shows.

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So, naturally, when Smith announced that his next film would not be Clerks III but rather the story of a man being put into a walrus suit…well, I had to wonder what the hell was up with that.  Let it be known (and believe me, Smith is very good at letting everyone know) that he has had a booming success with his SModcast Podcast Network and lending him the ability to spew forth an endless barrage of marijuana-induced lunacy.  SModcast 259, The Walrus & The Carpenter, featured Smith and his partner in crime, Scott Mosier, discussing the conceit of a man forced to dress in a walrus suit and then spinning it about an extra two miles.  From there, Smith took to Twitter, asked his fans if they wanted to see this absurdity of a film made and now there exists a movie where Justin Long is turned into a walrus.

From a production standpoint, it truly is a miracle that Tusk was made and for that the movie impressed me.  I had fallen out of touch with SModcast, mostly due to not having enough time in the day to keep up with it.  As I stated, my initial reaction was one of curiosity to see how a concept like Tusk was going to be made.  I know from listening to enough Kevin Smith and following his Twitter that the guy is in it for himself now.  He wants to do what he finds fun about making movies and in this case it was putting "Michael Parks in a fucked up story, where he could recite some Lewis Carroll and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to some poor motherfucker sewn into a realistic walrus costume."

And that he did.  This is a movie spawned from SModcast and it exists in the vacuum of SModcast.  It's creepy enough to not be considered a comedy but it has enough of the Smith flare that it does not fall directly into the realm of horror.  It is a superbly bizarre amalgamation of comedy, horror and the surreal with a little bit of romantic drama thrown in.  What kind of movie is that?  A SModcast movie; a story spawned from impromptu yarns and then restructured into a film.  I suppose that part of me really wanted Smith to turn his style around and make a straight up horror movie, to really push the envelope with what he could do as a director.  But then I think back to Chasing Amy and realize that Smith has changed his style before.  Chasing Amy worked as well as it did because Smith put all that effort into making a strong romance picture, but still had the time of day to slip Jay and Silent Bob into it and keep the geeky references rife too.

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So, in that sense, did Tusk work?  Well, parts of it worked for me.  The best part of the movie, hands down, is Michael Parks, an actor who has clearly been around for a very long time but has only appealed to a very limited crowd of directors and fans.  He is a man of cult movies and has landed a part in nearly every Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez film.  But as opposed to the dryly-evil Abin Cooper of Smith's previous film, Red State, Parks' Howard Howe is far more charismatic, more of a mad scientist mixed with a passionate serial killer.  He delivers his lines with rich vigor and even in one of cinema's truly batshit moments (even for Kevin Smith), Parks somehow shines bright.

Justin Long also turns in a commendable performance as Wallace Bryton, the podcaster who ventures up to Manitoba.  By commendable, I mean that Long is perfectly fine in the scenes where he is human.  And I am not spoiling anything when I say that Howard Howe turns Wallace into a walrus, or rather a human-walrus hybrid.  From there, Long spends the rest of the movie trapped in this extremely hideous and, to be honest, rather disturbing looking walrus suit, producing unearthly bellows and howls from his tongueless mouth.

And really, this main story works pretty decently.  I listened to the original podcast that laid the groundwork for Tusk and it certainly changed a bit from origin to execution, but the gist of it remains.  Smith has crafted a tale debating the real difference between man and beast by putting his own spin on it.  The question is not so much, "Is man indeed a walrus at heart" as it should be, "Is man a beast at heart?"  Howard's obsession with turning a man into a beast stems from his early life.  As a child he was trapped in an asylum and for several years was heinously beaten, raped and abused.  He has seen the worst that mankind has to offer, twisting the view of his own race.  He hates humans and sees them as nothing less than beasts.

Yet Howe's one strand of love in this world came from the solace he found with a walrus that saved his life.  As a young man, he was stranded in the open ocean after the ship he was on sunk.  The walrus, fittingly named Mr. Tusk by Howe, pushed him to safety on an island and became his companion for six months, until which Howe killed and ate him to survive.  Howe had killed the only thing he found compassion in.  The walrus had ascended beyond any human that he could relate to, yet Howe still let his beastly qualities to take over and mutilate his friend.

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For Howe, his mission to recreate Mr. Tusk by Frankensteining people with walrus bones and skin is how Wallace figures into the plot.  Wallace is no good person.  He cheats on his girlfriend, Ally (Genesis Rodriguez).  His job as a podcaster is based in mocking and humiliating others for his own amusement.  He evolved from a charming dork and into a crude, arrogant and indulgent jerk.  In my eyes, becoming the walrus is his punishment.  Albeit, it is a harsh one, but it goes with Smith's idea that perhaps at heart, man is simply an animal in itself to survive.  When Howe tells him to "go full walrus" it is an invitation to let his primal tendencies take over. The culmination of this is Wallace's rapid loss of his sanity, which would realistically happen to anybody sewn into a walrus suit.  From somebody who made a career out of much more light-hearted fair, that is a pretty bleak view.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the entire movie, though, did not really have anything to do with the man-walrus.  In one of the film's flashbacks, Wallace explicates his days as a failed stand up comic and his old life.  Ally tells him that she misses the Wallace of old, the one that talked about Star Wars and was far cuter before he got "edgy."  Wallace retorts that the old Wallace was weak and the new Wallace is funny.  For me, as a long time Kevin Smith fan, this felt like Smith coming to terms with where he is right now in his career.  Even with a devoted fan base, he has been battling the endless barrage of requests for a return to his old films and been accused of being a sell out.  Conversely, Smith himself has declared that the old Kevin Smith has been left behind in a cloud of pot smoke and that he is content with where he is now.  I suppose that from here, Smith's burden to carry will not be a walrus suit but what success Tusk may bring and what it can do for him.

In regards to the rest of the picture, it's a mixed bag.  Johnny Depp shows up during the last act to more or less to save the day.  His character of Guy LaPointe (pronounced "Gii") explains Howard Howe's motives in an outrageously Canadian accent.  I have a number of Canadian friends and none of them talk quite like that.  There is a love triangle going on between Wallace, Ally and his co-host Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) that does not serve much other purpose than further showing Wallace is a jerk.

For the die-hard Smith and SModcast fans, there are plenty of Easter Eggs, including references to Chewlies gum from Clerks; the use of the Hobo Spider, having originated in SModcast; and a number of cameos from SModCo regulars.

Despite Tusk being far from a perfect film, it has been close to a week and I am still thinking about it.  It certainly is not David Cronenberg's The Fly, but by some stroke of luck, Kevin Smith has managed to craft a tale from some truly outlandish source material and kind of made it work.  In an oddball way, it is a very personal tale while at the same time is strange, new ground for Smith to cover.  It isn't perfect, but when it worked, it worked pretty well for a movie about a guy in a walrus suit.

Dylan Gonzalez happens to love beer, comic books, and Kevin Smith and luckily found a place to write about them because he has no idea how to actually make money in the real world.  He lives in a cave in New Jersey. Tweet him at @BeardedPickle, follow his beer blog at http://boozegeek.tumblr.com/or email him at dylan.gonzalez1990@gmail.com.

About Hannah Means Shannon

Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool. Independent comics scholar and former English Professor. Writing books on magic in the works of Alan Moore and the early works of Neil Gaiman.

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