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Review: Swiss Army Man

August 1, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Swiss Army Man PosterWho knew that a movie about the friendship between a depressed man stranded in the wilderness and a farting corpse would be one of the best movies of the year, and yet here we are.  Swiss Army Man is such a weird, strangely beautiful and surprisingly profound film, that once you’ve seen it, it’s hard to stop thinking about.

The feature debut of co-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who are collectively credited as Daniels, Swiss Army Man is a truly original work of art, using one of the most unique premises in recent memory to become an unforgettable meditation on what it means to be alive.  It’s hard to really put any of this into words, but I’m going to try my best.

The film opens with the depressed and unkempt Hank (Paul Dano) stranded on an island and about to hang himself, when a body (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on the beach, and distracts him from the noose around his neck.  The body’s thunderous flatulence suggest there might still be some life left in him, and allows him to be ridden like a human jet ski, taking Hank back to shore and into the middle of the wilderness.  As Hank carries the body through the woods in search of civilization, the reanimated corpse soon starts to talk and reveals his name to be Manny, providing much needed companionship.

The questions that Manny has about the world lead Hank to reflect upon his own life and relationships, as he recreates elements of civilization through discarded litter that he finds, to help Manny remember the land of the living.  Hank also discovers that Manny functions as a sort of “human multi-purpose tool,” complete with fresh water that spews from his mouth but is clean enough to drink, and a bulging erection in his pants that might just be pointing them in the direction of home.  Manny also has chop-action arms that allow him to split wood, and can powerfully regurgitate objects to be used as either a weapon, hunting tool or grappling hook launcher.

This all sounds so strange to describe, and that’s because it is, but Swiss Army Man is proof that you can take even the weirdest and most outlandish idea and turn it into something genuine and heartfelt.  The fact that all of these elements work in service of the story, and none of them feel out of place, is a true testament to the power of the filmmakers.  The whole thing works so well, that it’s almost a disservice to describe it based solely on the admittedly absurd premise, because the film is so much more than just the “farting corpse movie” that it has somewhat simplistically come to be known as.  The key here is that the focus is always kept on the characters first and foremost.

The film showcases a pair of excellent performances from Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, who carry the majority of Swiss Army Man on their shoulders, and develop involving chemistry together.  Paul Dano continues to prove himself as one of our most interesting actors, and he is once again gripping to watch here, as his face hauntingly portrays both deep emotional pain and an earnest, almost childlike sense of wonder.  Through stiff, minimal movements and often slurred speech, Daniel Radcliffe brilliantly crafts a complete character with a compelling arc and everything.  It’s fascinating how much nuance he brings to what is essentially a dead body, in a performance that is masterful and heartbreaking to watch.

When Manny sees the picture of a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) on Hank’s phone, he starts asking about what it feels like to masturbate, have sex and fall in love, things that he forgets and fears he will never experience.  His questions are not unlike someone who is depressed and doesn’t remember what it’s like to be happy, and through several beautifully edited montages, Hank starts evocatively describing these feelings to him.  This gives way to a many haunting and lyrical sequences that reach profound truths about embracing being alive and accepting inevitable death, as Manny starts regaining some semblance of his humanity.

There are also many disarmingly funny moments throughout Swiss Army Man, and the entire film is a perfectly handled balancing act from beginning to end.  The tone of the film is sometimes joyous and playful in nature, and other times heartbreaking, using crude humour to explore high concepts of life, death and relationships.  Although the circumstances of their friendship are unique to say the least, the things that Hank and Manny talk about are all rooted in truth.  There is also a case to be made for the film to be read metaphorically, instead of literally, and if you look beyond the more fantastical elements, Swiss Army Man becomes a poignant study of mental illness.

There are many elements of Hank that are mirrored in Manny, albeit in a more extreme way.  Hank is a character so unresponsive to the world that he needs to rely on delusion to create a reason to go on living, and find a way to accept himself.  But if he can convince Manny, who becomes acutely aware of the fact that the rest of the world will view him as terrifying and disgusting, that he is deserving of love, then perhaps Hank can see himself as also worthy of being loved.  The surprising last act is open to both allegorical and literal readings of the film, evoking the feeling that, like Hank, we aren’t entirely sure how much of this happened in reality and what was only in his mind.

Although this could have just been a scatological one-joke film, Swiss Army Man turns into something much more than that.  The cinematography, sound design and musical score, which is often cued in and manipulated by the characters humming and singing, are all exceptional on their own terms, and work together brilliantly to create a hypnotizing landscape for the film to unfold in.  There is just such a sense of longing and loneliness beneath the surface, and a deep well of sadness flowing through the film, that the feelings it evokes are hard to shake.  The whole thing plays like a dream that affects us deeply in the moment, and is hard to fully explain afterwards.

It’s not often you see a film that feels truly original and like something you’ve never seen before, but Swiss Army Man is one of those all too rare films.  Although it has elements that recall a myriad of both literary and cinematic sources, including the melancholic playfulness of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are and the observations on loneliness that permeate throughout Charlie Kaufman’s work, the film never feels like anything less than its own thing.

No, it won’t be for everyone, and some will inevitably write it off.  But my advice to curious viewers is to just give Swiss Army Man a chance and let the story and performances wash over you, like I did.  This is an enchanting and mesmerizing film, both absurdly humourous and deeply human.  It’s an experience like no other, a moving work of surrealistic genius that uses a farting and often erect corpse to remind us of the simple beauty of being alive and having someone to live for.

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