I saw DOGMA for the first time when I was 10 years old, and I absolutely loved it. I still do. I was in a Catholic grade school trying my damnedest to be as “punk” as I possibly could, and here was a film that directly confronted the propaganda that I felt steeped in – not just intelligently, but necessarily farcically. Only Kevin Smith can pull off such special blends of smart & silly, verbose & raunchy, and more recently, disturbing & unabashedly fun. The god-of-geeks behind the CLERKS trilogy (yes, trilogy – the upcoming final installment will supposedly be Smith’s swan song to film) has thankfully postponed his retirement to bring us a few last flicks before bowing out. His previous film, RED STATE, was his first foray into horror, and is legitimately brilliant. Taking on the extreme religious right embodied by a church not unlike Westboro Baptist, and a pastor not unlike the walking garbage can that is Fred Phelps, RED STATE is clever, fast, violent, disturbing, and most of all, fun. If you haven’t seen it, you have a date with Netflix tonight.
TUSK has a unique genesis. Smith hosts a podcast with longtime friend and producer Scott Mosier called SModcast. The pair sat down to record Episode 259 on June 25, 2013, during which they discussed an article sent to them via Twitter about a man that had allegedly posted an ad to Gumtree (an online classifieds section) offering free room and board to anyone willing to dress as a walrus from time to time. The man claimed to have once been lost at sea, his only companion being a walrus named Gregory. He described his heartache over their separation upon his rescue, all the while expressing his desire to recreate those better times. Smith and Mosier couldn’t help themselves – over the course of the podcast, they took the odd tale down a series of hypothetical paths, and finally, at its end, Smith called on his loyal listeners to hashtag either “WalrusYes” or “WalrusNo” regarding whether or not he should pursue making the film. The winner was clear. 20 days later (seriously, only 20), Smith had an 80-page rough draft.
The story begins with the appropriately-named Wallace Bryton, played by the ever-loud Justin Long. Wallace and his best friend, Teddy Craft (Haley Joel Osment), run a podcast called “The Not-See Party,” the M.O. of which is to send Wallace out into the world to interview internet sensations whose stories he then brings back to viciously ridicule with Teddy – think Tosh.0 on steroids sans censorship. The film establishes considerably early on that this Wallace guy is no good, and continually reinforces his awfulness through a series of expository flashbacks. Just like the bigoted churchgoers in RED STATE, he is designed purely for a comeuppance.
After an interview in Manitoba proves fruitless, Wallace vows not to leave Canada without a story worthy of replacing it. He tries his luck at a bar, where in the bathroom he sees an ad – well, more like a letter – addressed to anyone seeking room and board that mentions harrowing tales in search of keen ears. Wallace, thinking he’s struck oil in the unlikeliest of places, immediately arranges to meet with its writer at his estate. When he arrives, we are introduced to the paraplegic Howard Howe, played by the always impressive Michael Parks (who is also RED STATE’s pastor). Being an ambassador for Parks’ talent, Smith has openly admitted that he modeled not only Howe’s persona, but the entire film after what he would love to see Michael Parks perform – “I just wanted to showcase 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 I must say, it is an absolute treat to behold – TUSK’s strongest component is Michael Parks.
Its second strongest component is its writing, and more specifically, its means of exposition. The story plays out through a series of conversations, meaning there’s essentially little action. Several times I found myself thinking just how much it resembled a Tarantino, if it weren’t for its horrific elements. The black comedy is similar, for sure, and the dialogue is dense, quickly delivered, and won’t wait for you. My favorite moment finds Howe reminiscing of meeting Hemingway, who he refers to as “Ernie.” At least twice that I can recall, the story progresses by means of direct-to-camera monologues, the viewer taking the place of a silent, off-screen character. Both were appreciably long, and both were extraordinarily delivered – the first by Wallace’s long-time girlfriend played by Génesis Rodríguez, and the second by a “surprise” actor that I will not name for your benefit (it was revealed to me in another review prior to my viewing, and I don’t recommend knowing in advance).
While everything I’ve touched on so far would normally have me head over heals for a movie, TUSK’s third act unfortunately suffers due to the “surprise” actor’s appearance and his/her subsequent hijacking of the film – and suffers enough that I broke my promise to myself that I’d never say “third act” in a review. The tone of the film shifts considerably, and high injections of quirkiness completely erase what turns out wasn’t so deeply entrenched tension. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed these final segments – the performances remained top notch, the dialogue still smart and taught – but the horror is lost, and it is missed.
The final reveal of Wallace the Walrus can understandably elicit laughter – it did to a few around me – but what can you expect? It’s Justin Long deformed and crudely sewn into a flesh-colored walrus suit. I personally smiled widely when I saw the finished product, and the suit’s implications are amusingly unnerving. The film’s final attempts to address the animality of mankind, despite Smith offering a definite stance, are rendered muddled and ineffective due to the third act’s devolution into near farce. Even though I can honestly say I had a blast watching TUSK, and plan on owning a copy, I have to take its faults into account with my scoring. I can’t wait for Smith’s next few final films (he’s doing a Krampus movie called ANTI-CLAUS!), and want to leave you with a bit of his own advice: “Chase every dopey dream you ever have, so long as it doesn’t involve hurting or killing anybody.”