SWISS ARMY MAN ½
R, 95 mins.
2016, R, 95 mins.
Paul Dano as Hank / Daniel Radcliffe as Manny / Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Sarah
Written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
I’ve been covering the movie beat for a long time. I’ve screen and reviewed nearly 1500 films over the course of the last twelve years.
I can categorically say that SWISS ARMY MAN is one of the strangest films that I’ve seen during that span of time.
– and most notoriously – described as “The Daniel Radcliff
Farting Corpse Movie” (early reactions to the film at the Sundance Film
Festival earlier this year resulted in multiple walkouts), SWISS ARMY MAN
carries its absurdist premise like a proud badge of honor and, on one
positive, it completely defies simplistic genre labels. Parts of me were glad I saw it, whereas pasts of me, deep
down, were mortified that I did. The
film is bafflingly peculiar and I admired its never-look-back gumption to
be daringly different, but as to whether its execution matches its ambition?
The jury is out.
SWISS ARMY MAN,
rather thankfully, never wastes time with expositional particulars.
Right from the get go we meet Hank (Paul Dano), a poor sap that has apparently
been trapped all alone on a desert island for what appears to be an
awfully long time. He’s hit
rock bottom, so much so that he’s decided to commit suicide by fastening
himself a noose. Just
as he’s about to end it all he notices a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe)
washing up on shore, which we're assuming represents the very first human
contact (dead or alive) that Hank has had in quite some time.
Then the corpse passes gas – definitely not of the silent, but
deadly variety…this one is loud – which springs Hank into action.
Now, despite all outward signs, this body (which Hank dubs Manny)
is very much dead, but not so dead that Hank can’t jump on his
back and use his chronic flatulence as a form of propulsion to jet ski off
I’m not making
this up, but that’s just the beginning of this film’s unbridled
Hank and Manny do
manage to make to the mainland, but very far away from civilization.
Manny becomes a sort of new companion for Hank, seeing as (a)
he becomes capable of speech and (b) he emerges as a multi-purpose tool…a
“Swiss Army Man,” if you will. There’s
literally nothing that Manny can’t do, like using his…ummmm…erections
as a survival compass, spewing out geysers of water like a fountain,
spitting objects out of his mouth with the speed of a bullet, and chopping
items easily in half with one swing of his arm.
Yet, Manny is…a decomposing dead man.
He can’t really move under his own power and control, which
forces Hank to carry him everywhere...and that complicates things.
However, the more Hank travels with his newfangled companion
through the wild the more he wishes to “teach” him about the larger
world around him, which manifests itself in Hank building structures in
the forests that resemble cafes, busses, and movie theatres to
“educate” him. Slowly,
but surely, Hank learns that Manny is in love with a woman from his past
life, which prompts both of them to pull out all of the stops to make it
back to civilization alive…well…sort of for one of them.
very fitting that the last line of dialogue uttered in SWISS ARMY MAN is
“What the fuck?” Directors
Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (credited as “Daniels” in the film)
create and execute such an intoxicatingly baffling filmgoing experience.
The film’s endless oddity grabs our attention and never lets go.
There's a definitive sense of discovery in SWISS ARMY MAN, and
despite all of its wantonly perverse series of events that unfold, I was
never fully bored with the journey that it boldly asked me to take.
When all is said and done, you either have to let yourself go and
submit to this film…or not. Hank
himself, considering all of the sheer lunacy that goes on around him,
is a compelling creation, a person driven to his absolute wit’s end by
a seemingly no-win survival scenario that finds a newfound lease on living
and surviving with his relationship to…his farting corpse buddy.
Perhaps SWISS ARMY MAN is not about descending into unbridled
madness as much as it’s about...embracing it.
This might be the
most thanklessly acted film of 2016.
Dano is a performer that’s sometimes a bit too overzealous and
histrionic for his own good in key film roles, but he’s really tailored
made and perfectly cast here as Hank and fully embraces all of his
emotional frailties and fanatical drives to keep his very odd friendship with Manny – ahem! –
alive throughout the
story. Radcliffe, on the
other hand, has perhaps the toughest and trickiest acting challenge here,
seeing as he has to make a fully deceased and, for the most part,
paralyzed dead man somehow morph into a developed and realized entity.
Not only does he deliver an astonishing physical performance, but
he also conveys a multitude of inner meaning primarily through his
zombified facial expressions. I’ve
been largely tough on Radcliffe throughout is career; I’ve never thought
much of him as a charismatic actor with a considerable amount of presence,
but his work in SWISS ARMY MAN is in a whole other zany and compelling
stratosphere. Manny never becomes a painful-to-watch one joke persona in this
film, and it’s mostly because of Radcliffe’s courageous levels of
SWISS ARMY MAN is
also quite aesthetically accomplished, and the directors have a real
affinity for dreamlike visuals and spontaneously loose and freewheeling
imagery that recalls the brilliantly lyrical gonzo work of Michel Gondry.
The musical score here also makes for a fascinating case study,
mostly because of the way that Hank and Manny…sometimes…sing along
with the score in individual moments that are beyond meta.
And, yes, even though the film is about an ever growing bromance
between a man and his dead pal that has gas issues, SWISS ARMY
MAN does tackle some interesting themes at its core, like the notions of
alienation, loneliness, the therapeutic value of companionship, and fully
letting yourself go in the moment of any dire situation.
Here’s the problem: Is SWISS ARMY MAN just pretentious artsy fartsy (no pun intended) nonsense? Even though I despise such indifferent monikers when describing tough to crack and avant garde films like this, there’s no denying that SWISS ARMY MAN sometime wages a war within itself. There are moments when it treats its ape shit crazy premise with a soul crushing solemnity and other times when it’s played for the purposes of macabre laughs. I never gained an impression of what Kwan and Scheinert really thought of their characters and premise. Is SWISS ARMY MAN just lowbrow slapstick that uses bathroom and bodily function humor for cheap laughs or does it use it to communicate larger ideas of what intimate communication between two outsiders entails? Is SWISS ARMY MANY exquisitely rendered absurdist art or is it just playing one large twisted gag on viewers.
Ultimately, this kept me at a frustrating distance away from the film, which is especially hammered home in a would-be uplifting, but maddeningly ambiguous ending that thinks it’s saying everything when it actually says very little. SWISS ARMY MAN is not worthy of being walked out on, that much is certain. Dano’s and Radcliffe’s miraculously focused performances kept me in my seat. Alas, maybe this film is simply too impenetrably weird for its own good; that, and it really has no solid emotional payoff. But this film is an original work by promising filmmakers. In an age permeated by lazily rendered sequels and reboots, originality should be embraced and celebrated…perhaps just not as much as a fart in the wind.