Swiss Army Man (2016) – Movie Review
Swiss Army Man
Directed by: Daniel Scheinert & Daniel Kwan
Written by: Daniel Scheinert & Daniel Kwan
Starring: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe & Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Music: Andy Hull & Robert McDowell
Release Date: September 30th 2016
For many people, ‘Swiss Army Man‘ will need no introduction. Directed and written by “Daniels” (the screen-name of directing duo Daniel Schienert and Daniel Kwan) the indie film made a splash at its debut at Sundance in January 2016 and became known as the “Daniel Radcliffe Farting Corpse Movie”. That unofficial title gave it a quirky reputation and the film also prompted several walk-outs during its time at festivals (which means it MUST be good) and thus the movie where Daniel Radcliffe literally plays a farting corpse began to gain some traction.
It’s also an interesting career move for Paul Dano (who was considered an Oscar-snub last year after ‘Love & Mercy‘) and especially Radcliffe who has made a deliberate effect in a Post-Potter world to step away from the role of the “Boy Who Lived” including but not limited to becoming a devil, a dog-walker, Igor and a undercover white-supremacist, but even a farting corpse is a step beyond what he’s done before. Is ‘Swiss Army Man‘ just a piece of hot-air cinema or is there something here that only such an obtuse premise can unveil about ourselves?
For unknown reasons, Hank (Dano) is alone on a deserted island and about to commit suicide out of despair. But before he can hang himself, he notices a corpse (Radcliffe) floating in the sea nearby. He tries to perform C.P.R. but the body is too far gone and is undergoing decomposition, including expelling all the gas allowing it to travel across the water, propelled by its own farts. Hank uses the corpse to escape the island like a jetski and winds up on the mainland but with still miles of wilderness to wade through to get to civilisation. The corpse starts to slowly come back to life thanks to possibly remembering a woman he might have been in love with before (Winstead) and Hank names the corpse Manny as two try to make their way out of the forest.
The movie is knowingly absurd in its premise and has a lot of fun with the idea of using a corpse in order to trek across the wilderness in a practical sense. Manny the Corpse seems to have some sort of magical properties including (but not limited to) producing unlimited quantities of clean drinking water from his mouth, has erections that act like a compass, has a powerful karate-chop like an action-figure, extra strong teeth and nails and that’s just to name a few. But ‘Swiss Army Man‘ isn’t a survival story, it’s rather a series of extended conversations between Hank and Manny about societal conventions.
With Manny waking up from the dead he’s mentally starting from scratch and that framework allows Hank (and by extension, the audience) to ask questions about humankind. Hank continually tells Manny “you can’t say that” or “you’re not allowed to do that” and all the time Manny responds “why?” and Hank never really has a convincing answer. Why do we always hide our farts? Urinate in private? Cover up our erections? Well, because society has told us to, of course! But…society shares those exact same bodily functions. Why are we so ashamed and embarrassed about something that every. single. other. human on the planet does? Even though ‘Swiss Army Man‘ doesn’t really give us an answer to that question, there really isn’t one anyway and it revels in asking that question just to get people pondering.
But then when Manny gets an erection at a very inappropriate time in front of a child it kinda undercuts the questions it was asking, but maybe it did it deliberately? I dunno.
Honestly, ‘Swiss Army Man‘ is a hard movie to critique because it disarms you from taking it head-on at face value. It’s a movie almost exclusively about feelings then it is narrative exploration. It’s a Rorschach test of a movie where some may see it as superfluous, immature, farting nonsense and some see as a masterpiece that explores the human condition. As for me…I think it’s a movie that’s very broadly about human inhibitions and it’s very novel explaining to someone with a blank-slate of a mind how to go on dates, how to watch a movie and how to talk to people.
It tackles a lot of themes and ideas and it does them all very well, but with the movie only lasting 97 minutes (and the last 20 minutes being almost entirely plot-driven and…just not really that enjoyable) it feels like it’s approaching a lot of topics and ideas but it’s not sticking the landing and settling on something before it moves onto something else.
‘Swiss Army Man‘ is still able to work, mostly because of how well Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe adapt to the material at every turn, whether it’s Dano dressing up in elaborate, home-made women’s clothing for the sake of role-play and basically every single thing that Radcliffe does. The two work so well together on-screen, are so on board with the material that you can’t help but wish you were there on location just to see how the whole enterprise worked from an outsider perspective. Though Mary Elizabeth Winstead gets a very thankless role as “society” who doesn’t understand the wonder of erections and farting.
Practically, the film is one of the most visually arresting and inventive of the year. Whether it’s the grey and dark green colour palette throughout which Paul Dano’s wardrobe continually clashes with, the well placed slow-motion sequences and also the incredibly comprehensive and complex and sophisticated sets that Hank builds out of leaves, sticks and leftover pieces of scrap and litter dotted around their environment, ‘Swiss Army Man’ feels like one of the most complex home-movies ever made. Part of me thinks that the sets are so elaborate that most of the film is actually taking place inside the mind of Hank and that Manny is just a normal corpse that Hank is projecting his insecurities onto. But Manny influences Hank so much that I really don’t see how that could be the case…not to mention the last 20 minutes put to bed ANY inkling of that narrative device.
Special mention must be given to the music which was composed by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell. Uniquely, the score was finished before any filming had taken place and was actually played on location during filming for the actors to work with and respond to. But it’s eerie, yet quirky, A cappella approach elevates the material and works in perfect synergy with the visuals as well as the pace of the shots. ‘Swiss Army Man‘ the movie and ‘Swiss Army Man‘ the score feels completely inseparable.
Despite everything going for ‘Swiss Army Man‘, with its methodical pace, great performances, unique premise and sharp insight into the awkwardness of being yourself and being human, it often feels quite lightweight. The subjects it approaches are worth confronting and talking about, but it does it so quickly and through such an abstract lens that despite asking legitimate questions it rarely seems to land on anything truly substantial. I’m glad I saw the “Daniel Radcliffe Farting Corpse Movie” but aside from some potent imagery its staying was surprisingly non-existant. But (obviously) your mileage will vary.
I give ‘Swiss Army Man‘ 3 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 2nd Jan 17