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Kevin Smith‘s Tusk is a prime example of a filmmaker in the midst of reinvention. Ever since the disaster that was Cop Out, Smith has been on a quest to become a new director. First he shunned Hollywood and self-distributed Red State, a welcome departure from his off-the-wall comedies of the past. Now he’s delving deep into horror with Tusk, the story of a man named Howard (Michael Parks) who kidnaps a podcaster named Wallace (Justin Long) and attempts to turn him into a Walrus.

Much like Smith’s up-and-down career path, Tusk has a fascinating trajectory. Everything starts off well with the director slowly but surely building a very specific, intriguing and foreboding tone. Even as the story begins to border on the ridiculous and the gore gets exponentially more intense, we buy it because the film has won us over with its sharp writing, well-timed humor, inventive plot and layered storytelling.

Unfortunately, about two-thirds into the movie, Smith apparently saw some brake lights in front of him because the film comes to a screeching halt. It stops being fun so suddenly and so painfully it’s almost unfathomable. Things never quite recover from that narrative roadblock and, by the end, it all feels arbitrary and amateurish.

That aforementioned derailment in Tusk is the introduction of Guy Lapointe, played by an uncredited Johnny Depp. He’s brought in as an investigator when Wallace’s friends (played by Genesis Rodriguez and Haley Joel Osment) finally find out that their friend has gone missing.

Up to this point, Smith’s script and direction has kept a very nice balance between Wallace and his friends in their normal Los Angeles lives and Wallace’s trip into Canada. Once Wallace discovers Howard’s intriguing story, he travels up there and very quickly, things take a turn towards the dark side. While all this is happening, all of the main characters are very strong. They’re funny when they need to be, emotional when they need to be and Parks is especially ominous when he needs to be. Smith even fits in some flashbacks that feel a little out of place, but add to the story and increase the scope.

But then Smith introduces Lapointe and for – I kid you not – at least 15 minutes, the character sits in front of the camera to tell his backstory, Howard’s backstory, and it’s like a whole other movie. A tangent destined for the deleted scenes. And everything that came before it is lost. Boredom sets in, interest wains, and even Johnny Depp’s French Canadian accent doesn’t help.

This might have been less of an issue if Smith hadn’t revealed Wallace’s fate prior to Lapointe’s introduction. We don’t know how the story ends, but Wallace’s well-being is cemented before Lapointe’s scene. That means the efforts of his friends are pointless and the tension is gone. So the film has already shown its money shot, removed most narrative interest, and we have to sit with this new, ambiguous character for about 1/6th of the total running time.

When the scene is finally over and we get back to the main narrative, Smith gets really dark, really violent and really gross with the film. Which would have worked great if it happened in tandem with the first half when he was building tension. By the end, it just feels unnecessary.

All that said, Tusk does have good things going for it. All four lead performances, Parks in particular, are effective. Smith’s flair for dialogue hasn’t gone away, the score by Christopher Drake is noteworthy and Smith’s shot choices and camera movements have improved drastically over the years. Still, all that doesn’t make up for the inconsistencies.

Tusk is Smith’s 11th feature but, of those 11, two are radically different. The last two. And that’s when Tusk makes sense. It feels like an overly ambitious movie from a reinvented filmmaker. One with lots of talent who is still struggling to figure everything out. It’s no coincidence that, in the film, Wallace is a very successful podcaster who used to be a funny geek. He’s Smith and the transformation Wallace goes through is kind of like what Smith and Tusk go through. It starts off good, completely flips, then struggles to find its way back. I think Smith will find his way back, but the film does not.

/Film rating: 5 of 10

Tusk opens September 19.

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About the Author

Germain graduated NYU's Tisch School of the Arts Cinema Studies program in 2002 and won back to back First Place awards for film criticism from the New York State Associated Press in 2006 and 2007.