- - Thursday, September 18, 2014

Here it is — the weirdest movie of the year. “Tusk,” writer-director Kevin Smith’s tale of torture and transformation, is horrific, darkly comic and deeply bizarre, often all at once.

It’s also surprisingly engaging, at least for the first hour, until the movie takes a turn for the goofy that doesn’t quite work.

Part of what makes the first half of “Tusk” work so well is its unnerving simplicity. The movie follows Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), a successful Internet radio host, on a trip to Canada to interview a teenager who became a Web-video sensation after accidentally cutting off his own leg while swinging a sword on camera.

Wallace is a kind of professional snark-slinger — an expert in funny but mean-spirited ridicule who interacts with the world exclusively through pop-culture references and clever insults. His intent is to make fun of the poor kid, to transform him into another vehicle for the sick amusement of Wallace and his show’s fans.

But when he arrives, the kid is dead, and Wallace ends up chasing a different story based on an unusual note he finds posted in a bathroom bar. That story quickly leads him to an old, wheelchair-bound man named Howard Howe (veteran character actor Michael Parks), who is not at all what he seems. Howe has plans for Wallace, and from there the movie’s twisted story unfolds.



Much of the movie’s first half pits Wallace against Howe in increasingly quirky, tension-building conversations. These scenes are long, slow and masterfully acted and written.

Mr. Smith, one of the icons of indie cinema in the 1990s, built his reputation on his ability to craft nimble, funny, existentialist dialogue. In films like “Clerks” and “Mallrats,” he captured the circular rhythms and pop-infused sensibility of bored and aimless Gen Xers.

In “Tusk,” his target is the cruel, nihilistic wit of the Internet generation, embodied with sleazy gusto by Mr. Long (who first came to fame in a series of ads for Apple computers). But instead of pairing Mr. Long with another of his own kind, Mr. Smith sets him up against someone who turns out to be far more cruel and mischievous.

Howe is an exquisitely deranged horror-flick villain, played with intense and often hilarious midnight-movie menace by Mr. Parks, and written with a kind of meticulous specificity by Mr. Smith.

I won’t spoil the details of Howe’s big plan, but let’s just say it’s not an accident that Wallace’s name sounds an awful lot like “walrus.” Essentially, Howe plans to use and abuse Wallace for his own amusement, just as Wallace planned to do with the young man he originally intended to interview.

The scenes between Howe and Wallace become increasingly disturbing as the movie goes forward, but the story loses momentum in the second half thanks to the appearance of Guy Lapointe, a French-Canadian detective hunting down Wallace’s captor, played by an uncredited superstar in a bit of stunt casting.

In the end, those overlong scenes, which tend to involve Lapointe monologuing at length to Wallace’s girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) and best buddy Teddy (Haley Joel Osment), are a poor tonal fit with the movie’s main plot. Ultimately, they make the movie something of an uneven mess.

They’re odd, but they’re not sufficiently bizarre to go with the rest of the movie. This is a film that thrives on weirdness, but in the end, too much of it is not weird enough.

 

TITLE: “Tusk”

CREDITS: Written and directed by Kevin Smith

RATING: R for bizarre horror-movie violence, language, sexual situations

RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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