The first film in Kevin Smith’s proposed (dreaded?) “True North Trilogy,” Tusk may have the distinction of being the first torture porn comedy. It’s clearly built on the chassis of a horror movie, and it’s even got moments of nearly-effective dread, but it’s much more interested in going for laughs than scares. Unfortunately, it’s not great at going for either.
Perhaps the best joke in Tusk is the “based on actual events” tag that precedes the movie. Not actually because of the liberties that Smith’s film takes with the actual events that inspired it, but because the by-now infamous story behind how Tusk came to be manages to inherently poke fun at all the “inspired by a true story” conceits that are so common in horror movies these days.
In spite of an early piece of dodgy CGI so bad that I thought it was supposed to have been fake within the movie, the film’s first act begins pretty strongly, and it doesn’t take long for Smith to deploy his not-so-secret weapon in the form of Michael Parks, who can deliver even the most inane dialogue as menacing, goofy, or gentlemanly, all in equal measure. The movie’s best scenes are those where Parks’ Howard Howe and Justin Long’s douchey podcaster Wallace sit around in Howe’s rambling mansion (Pippy Hill, all dark wood and crackling fire and relics from his seafaring past) and just talk.
Sadly, even the early portions of the movie are marred by a tendency to include way too many flashbacks. With Parks and Long we have two equally unreliable narrators, one of whom has a voice and delivery that’s a better special effect than anything else the movie could possibly deploy. Listening to them talk is mesmerizing; showing us what they say—or, worse, what really happened—only serves to undercut whatever atmosphere Smith and company have managed to build up to that point.
After the first act, things start to go downhill at a run. There’s a moment between Parks and Long at a dinner table that caps the first act and is also pretty much the last time the movie will ever be firing on all cylinders, to the extent that it ever was. Part of the problem is that Tusk feels like exactly what it is—one punchline, dragged out way past its expiration date. What could have been a solid short film becomes unbelievably bloated at 102 minutes, and never goes anywhere you didn’t see coming from the minute you learned the premise. And while the back-and-forth between Parks and Long seems like it could pack some sort of thematic payoff, it never does.
From the end of the film’s first act, everything unspools in a manner that feels inevitable in all the worst ways. Smith’s tendency to go for the broad or easy joke works against him at almost every step, especially when an uncredited star shows up in the third act, playing a role with all the dignity and subtlety of Steve Martin’s Pink Panther movies. It’s a stick of dynamite in the bottom of a ship that’s already sinking, and once it starts the movie can’t end fast enough.
By the time Tusk stumbles and flops to its inevitable Tales from the Crypt-style conclusion, I had long since lost interest, and Smith’s hamfisted attempt to add poignancy to the scene—courtesy of another flashback—just felt tiresome, instead.