Tusk is about a podcaster who heads north to Canada with the intention of interviewing a Youtube star only to find himself stuck in a nightmare after a geriatric ex-sailor drugs him, kidnaps him, and then surgically transforms him into a human-walrus hybrid.
(I'm going to pause for a second to let the insanity of that sentence sink in.)
This type of story can be told well, especially if it directly taps into latent fears we all have about our bodies being violated or mutilated, but pulling it off requires a lot of discipline on the filmmaker's part. If the goal is to make a horror film, then any camp elements have to be kept at bay; if the goal is to make a campy film then the film has to know when it's audience is laughing with it and when they are laughing at it; and if the goal is to simply make a surreal movie, one that traffics in weirdness for weirdness' sake, then you have to keep the nightmarish imagery coming at a steady clip or else it will simply turn dull.
Unfortunately, Tusk's writer/director Kevin Smith has always struggled with discipline. When he picks a lane and stays in it - as he did with Red State or Mallrats - his films are totally fine, but too many of them fall apart because he can't handle more than one tone at once. His attempts at dramedy tend to be awkward mash ups of sophomoric jokes and sentimentality where one part undermines the other. He also runs into trouble when he tries to mix low key observations about pop culture junk (his strong suit) with attempts at large scale philosophizing (which he's terrible at.) Sadly, Tusk is a similarly misbegotten beast, since it is an unworkable combination of horror and comedy that never settles into being a horror-comedy.
The film's opening third works fine: it establishes the characters fairly quickly, and it does a solid job of creating an uneasy mood. The second act, however, completely falls apart for two reasons. The first reason is fairly self explanatory: it's easy to buy that a demented person might drug and kidnap a stranger, but trying to turn them into a walrus is too bizarre to be believable. The film has an explanation for the ex-sailor's walrus fixation, and the story it tells might work if it was about a less unlikely animal, but the sailor's story is not strong enough to convince me of his particular brand of madness. If Smith was truly set on using that particular sea mammal, then he was going to have to justify it with nightmare logic because nothing else could connect the dots. His too literal explanation just doesn't wash.
The other problem is that the film's darkness is inexplicably broken about halfway through when the cop who is investigating the podcaster's disappearance enters the story, because the cop is a goofy caricature that belongs in a completely different movie. And to be honest with you, if he was in a different movie I would never want to watch it - he's just an awful character, totally over the top and stale. His presence totally sapped any hope that I had that the movie could pull itself together by the end, because I knew there was no conceivable way to work his silliness into the surreal story that the rest of the movie was trying to tell.
Tusk has such an off beat premise that most people would automatically write it off. However, I'm the sort of weirdo that's interested in transmutation movies, because sometimes you get an interesting allegory (like the Cronenberg verion of the Fly), and sometimes you get something that's simply entertaining (like the original version of The Fly) - but of course, sometimes you just get something that's neither fish nor fowl. Since Tusk doesn't really know what kind of movie it wants to be, it belongs in that third category. I suppose that's fitting given it's subject matter, but I can't give the movie a pass because it's badness is ironically appropriate. After all, if there's anyone who should understand how intolerable it is to be stuck watching a movie that's neither here nor there it would be the person who made a horror film about a how intolerable it is to be stuck in a neither here nor there netherworld, right?
Winner: The Cat