Here’s a nice bit of synchronicity: on Saturday, September 6, Kevin Smith attended the world premiere of Tusk, a movie about a crazed killer who cuts up his victims to make them resemble walruses. On Saturday, September 6, John Waters attended the not-so world premiere of Serial Mom, a movie about a crazed housewife who cuts up her neighbors when they fail to follow polite social norms. Two cult directors, both who have spent their career highlighting a particular region and the allure of bizarre, ritualized behaviors. And yet, while Waters’s reputation as a filmmaker has never been higher, Smith is trying to come back from a retirement that few cared about in the first place.
The problem with Kevin Smith is not simply that he has refused to change; as John Waters demonstrates, there is a place in high society for the campy maverick who pits himself as the antithesis of all things Hollywood. The problem with Smith is that his culture has changed around him. The types of characters that exist in Smith’s earliest work – Clerks, Mallrats – have gone from social misfits to the target demographic for every blockbuster production. Conversations about the minutiae of science-fiction films are now the bane of marketing departments; incongruous plot points can ruin box office projections and send a director on the interview circuit before the film has even started shooting. And where before, intolerance could be perceived as the immaturity of the young and isolated, now gamers can rise up with once voice and loudly declare, we’re not going to change, and we’d prefer you don’t, either.
There is only one John Waters, but we all are personally acquainted with a Kevin Smith or two, and to be honest, he’s kind of a dick.
Which brings me to my good news about Tusk: whether you like Smith or not, Tusk is the film for you. If you think that Smith is a sophomoric writer who spends too much time on the scatological, then you will find the professional podcaster Wallace Bryton played by Justin Long to be among Smith’s worst characters. You will also really, really dislike the time spent on the third act’s Surprise Guest Star, who rambles wildly in a spotty French Canadian accent and grinds the narrative to a halt. You might also-also be frustrated with the long-suffering girlfriend character who fluctuates wildly between nagging, cheating, and frantically searching for her walrus boyfriend; Smith’s characters have a tendency to win back the girl without having to alter their worldview in any way, and Tusk paints Ally as suffering from a kind-of Stockholm Syndrome in her relationship with Wallace.
On the other hand, there is the Smith who can draw on a vast network of collaborators and get first-rate performances in a second-rate concept. Justin Long may spend most of the movie in a glorified fat-suit, but he’s no stranger to horror; like in Jeepers Creepers, Long’s nervous energy as an actor is well-suited to someone who cannot quite come to terms with the situation he is in. Michael Parks also shines as Howard Howe. There’s not a lot of depth there, and Smith makes the actor really slum it up in a late scene with Surprise Guest Star, but Parks’s very presence balances out some of the idiocy and gives Tusk the gravitas booster shot it so desperately needs. In fact, the film is able to realize its full potential in an early scene between the two. When Wallace wakes up finds himself strapped to a wheelchair with a missing leg, Howard begins to improvise a story about a brown recluse spider and a neighboring surgeon, making himself laugh at the absurdity of his own lies. Here Wallace lets down his guard for the first time while Howard’s insanity begins to bubble to the surface. It’s a killer scene – the best in the movie – and a reminder that Smith’s characters are at their best when they’re, basically, making shit up.
Tusk is not a film that will change your opinion about Smith; in fact, it is not a film that seems capable of stepping outside the persona of its writer-director. Though it may aspire to be a satire of the body-horror genre, Smith has no interest in elevating the conventions of the genre above his own tropes as a filmmaker. This means that any review of the film is, essentially, a review of the filmmaker. You could say that Tusk is a movie that lacks teeth; you could also say that the only difference between Smith and Howard is the former’s inability to make a cut. Ultimately, though, this is a film made by one man for thousands of people who think exactly like him. The only real mystery for the rest of us is whether Smith purchased the rights to the eponymous Fleetwood Mac song, and that, dear reader, is something I would never dream of spoiling.