THEATRICAL REVIEW: Swiss Army Man
Produced by: Eval Rimmon, Lauren Mann, Lawrence Inglee, Jonathan Wang, Miranda Bailey, Amanda Marshall
Written by: Daniel Scheinert, Daniel Kwan
Edited by: Matthew Hannam
Cinematography by: Larkin Seiple
Music by: Andy Hull, Robert McDowell
Starring: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
I’ve never been so moved by a movie with this many farts since… well, probably ever….
Yes, Swiss Army Man is indeed the story of a stranded, lonely man who discovers a flatulent corpse that remarkably proves itself (himself?) to be capable of all manner of strange but useful abilities: jet ski, grappling hook, gun… but here, perhaps the most useful of all is the unexpected ability for the long since deceased man to speak.
Paul Dano plays the lonely man, Hank, and Daniel Radcliffe plays Manny, the corpse, and though Hank knows he’s likely going insane (there are plenty of hints about this, including a score that walks the line between diegetic singing and mere figment of the characters’ imagination), he’s willing to accept this so long as it means that he survives this ordeal and finds his way back home again. Manny, however, is a curious companion and, in death, is much like a child, learning from Hank about the simplest of concepts, such as why it’s considered rude to fart in front of someone, or how everyone poops… among other things that I’m certain not a lot of other people I know would scoff at me mentioning here if they read it.
The film, as you can imagine, is pretty offbeat and has absurdity bursting from the seams, but if you watch the film and get past those strange, purposely awkward moments, Swiss Army Man reveals itself to be something truly, oddly, but immensely beautiful. Somehow, directors and writers Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (collectively credited as “Daniels”) have taken the lowest of lowbrow humor, something that easily could’ve been nothing but awkward moments with a dead guy meant to make audiences squeal at the inappropriateness and randomness of it all, and made a coherent and genuinely moving emotional story about – what else? – what it means to be truly alive.
Yes, I know the subject matter has been dealt with quite a bit, but never with such humor and imagination as in this film. By making audiences feel so uncomfortable and weirded out, the directors are seemingly pointing out that everything discussed (and everything that’s not) is often just a matter of arbitrary rules that society has placed on each person to uphold, regardless of whether or not it’s something we can all acknowledge is a normal and natural part of being a living person.
Everyone farts and poops, so why is it so weird and awkward to discuss it? Here, watch a dead man fart across the ocean with his buddy riding him like a jet ski! Why is it so awkward to discuss sex? Sex is a natural and normal part of being alive, too, but society has more often than not made taboo things that are perfectly normal, albeit sensitive. We’ve all likely spent far too much time suppressing it than actually discussing it enough to prevent the harm, to others and ourselves. Here, now watch as the corpse gets an erection that seems to be guiding the way back home!
Does it get any weirder than this? Probably not, but with each exposure to something as absurd and gross as what’s shown (and let me preface this by saying that the movie never goes too far) you get more used to being confronted by it, and the clearer the message seems to be: too often we shun what’s real and sacrifice parts of ourselves for other people’s arbitrary rules, even when those very rules betray both the benign realities of what it is to be a human. Thus we perceive ourselves to be something defective and less than, ignoring the fact that we’re not the only ones dealing with it. Why not acknowledge that shared reality of life’s weirdness and bond over it instead? Perhaps it’s just because of where I’m finding myself right now in my life, but this movie, through its frank and bizarre nature, moved me in a really unexpected and kind of profound way.
A lot of this wouldn’t have worked, of course, without the performances and a good helping of humor. Both Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe deserve recognition for their commitment to these parts – Radcliffe in particular, who has to spend pretty much the entire film in a state of rigor mortis, his limbs contorted and head slumped into his neck, emoting even though his character is really only barely able to convey an expression beyond a grimace most times. Paul Dano is no slouch, either, though, and while we’ve seen him in these emotionally vulnerable and awkward roles before, it’s something he truly excels at. His performance as Hank is both glum and yet tremendously endearing, making those few moments where joy, hope, and clarity come to him so truly moving. And when the movie isn’t so weirdly beautiful, it’s also pretty hilarious – and how could it not be with that premise? You might think yourself above the sort of scatological humor this film sometimes indulges in, but I dare you not to lose it when the movie catches you off guard with that stuff by inserting it into what is overall a truly heartfelt moment. It was seriously a joy to behold.
Swiss Army Man is a movie that catches people off guard, and obviously always has since it was originally announced. You will not be prepared for the intensity of its strangeness, but you will be better off for having put up with it and, hopefully, will be as enchanted by the film and endeared to the characters and their plights as I was. Definitely one of, if not the most, surprising movies I have ever seen. And I hope that if you do check this out, you will not be like the couple in my showing who decided to bail on the movie 15 or so minutes in, when the film was really starting to get to the heart of what it’s all about. It’s only 97 minutes, and I know you have sat through far lesser, more predictable movies. If you truly value something original and want to see a movie about actual people (even if one of them is expired), you owe it to yourself to experience what is destined to become a cult classic.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4.5 / 5