"Twitter gives up gifts all the time. It gave up a gift last night."
In June 2013, around 11 minutes into his weekly podcast, director Kevin Smith introduced a strange story that he'd come across on Twitter. It was a listing on an apartment rental website, offering up a free room in a nice house under some conditions: the tenant, on occasion, would have to dress up as a walrus. The owner of the house had apparently once lived on an island with an actual walrus, and he dreamed of reliving that companionship in his old age.
Smith and his co-host bantered back and forth about this absurd listing, spinning it out into an even stranger tale of their own. Though the segment went on for an hour, it was after just 20 minutes that Smith knew they were on to something. He broke off their conversation, raised his voice and told listeners: "This is a fucking horror movie."
"This is a fucking horror movie."
And somehow, just over a year later, it's become one. What started as a bogus apartment listing has been turned into what's easily the weirdest film that Kevin Smith has ever made. It's called Tusk, and it tells the story of an immature podcast host named Wallace, played by Justin Long, who gets surgically morphed against his will into a grotesque walrus.
The movie is patently ridiculous, and it succeeds because of it. Like Smith spinning up a tall tale during his podcast, the film's story feels more like something that you'd hear around a campfire than during a scary movie — and it’s just as off the cuff. Tusk is goofy enough that you can let go of reality and buy into its moments of horror, and, at the same time, ludicrous enough to play it all for laughs too.
For the most part, Tusk has a wonderfully streamlined narrative. It moves really fast, with each scene taking whatever happened before it two steps further, elevating just how absurd things have become. It does start to drag eventually, as the film cuts away from the main action right as it's about to hit a climax. It does so in order to begin a separate thread about a farcical police officer (played in a surprising and wonderful cameo from Johnny Depp), which is enjoyable on its own terms — but it also makes you realize mid-movie that the bizarre walrus tale can only sustain itself for so long.
The walrus narrative is really only half of the story, though. The other half, shown throughout in both flashback and the present, is about Wallace’s strained relationship with his girlfriend. Yeah, this is a relationship As Told By Kevin Smith, so it means that we end up watching a closeup of Long as he comes to orgasm, but there's also a surprising thoughtfulness here in Smith's presentation of the Internet Male.
The film looks down upon internet culture's mockery of misfortune
Wallace is inconsiderate, immature, and unemotional. He hides himself behind his podcast-crafted persona. His podcast (cringingly named the "Not-See Party") is successful because it retells others' stories of misfortune. The film actually opens on their discussion of an analog to the Star Wars Kid named the Kill Bill Kid who recorded himself swinging a sword around and ended up chopping his leg off. It's a dated reference, but point being: his success is built on the failure and mockery of others. Welcome to the internet, I suppose.
Only Wallace's girlfriend calls him out for his bullshit, not that he listens. It's not really fair to say that he deserves the fate of being surgically transformed into a mutant human-walrus, but it's very much played as a karmic comeuppance. At the end of the film, it's finally Wallace who's the idiot that went through a painful experience — and it's only then that he really starts to have compassion for others.
It's so fitting that Smith decided to make an internet star the focus of his film — Tusk is very much a movie made through the magic of the web. The apartment listing that Smith read was a viral work of fiction, Smith's shoot-the-shit podcast is something that could really only find an audience online, and Tusk's actual existence owes a lot to Twitter. Not only did Smith find the story there — he asked fans to tweet at him whether they thought it should be a movie or not. Obviously, they did.
Given Tusk’s origins, it’s somewhat surprising that the movie has us laughing at the podcast hosts’ stupid behavior more than it tries to have us laughing with them. This film may be born from the depths of the internet, but it only keeps the offbeat mindset — not the uncouth culture we so often see with it. Its characters may display that culture (it's not hard to imagine that, filmed today, Long's character may have been bragging about downloading celebrities' stolen nude photos), but the film looks down upon it.
That's not to say that Tusk presents us with anything close to a character study or a deep meditation on the web, but there's oddly more to this film than a grotesque walrus. It's a film born of the internet that revels in the ridiculousness of it all. And this time, it’s okay to laugh at someone’s misfortune.