Reviewed by Cederick Gibbs
Swiss Army Man dares you to take it seriously at times and at other times, dares you to laugh at its irreverence. This runs throughout the film right from the beginning. In the cold open, we encounter Hank (Paul Dano), stranded on a remote island about to commit suicide. As he hums somberly, his eyes (and the camera) encounter a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) on the beach. In Hank’s moment of surprise, he almost hangs himself, but the rope pops. A freed Hank goes over to the corpse and begins talking to it, going on about how this must be a sign that maybe this is a sign that he should not end his life after all. As hope comes back to Hank’s life, the corpse farts. A displeased Hank goes back to his intent to commit suicide, now using the belt from the corpse to assist in his hanging. The farting has already generated some laughter and the cut from Hank being hopeful about life to his renewed attempt at hanging himself can elicit a few chuckles as well. As we see Hank up there about to attempt to hang himself again while humming somberly again, the tide comes in and the corpse begins to fart again. The corpse’s farts begin to propel the body out to the ocean. At this moment, Hank gets an idea. He rides the corpse out to the ocean triumphantly while epic sounding music plays. Cue the movie title and opening credits.
Swiss Army Man is about a suicidal guy and a multipurpose corpse that farts. Yes, this is a premise for an actual movie. The cold open serves as an appetizer to the rest of the movie. If an audience member didn’t know what they were exactly getting into, this should help them inch closer to the door or have the thought of “What” running through their heads for the rest of the movie. This is not a dismissal of the film (I enjoyed it), but I acknowledge that the premise might not go over well with people and sounds like something that might be aired the Adult Swim cable network after 2AM. Also, the farting, other bodily functions, and other things will be a turn off for some people. For those still intrigued, continue reading.
Swiss Army Man is the feature film directorial debut of the directing duo DANIELS, which consists of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Both have done previous work on Childrens Hospital and NTSF:SD:SUV, two shows that air on the previously mentioned Adult Swim. The film stars Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Swiss Army Man is also written by DANIELS and is distributed by A24, which has released films such as Ex Machina, Room, The Witch, and The Lobster. Kwan and Scheinert met each other at Emerson College in Boston in 2008 and have worked on various projects since then. The pair were invited to the Sundance Institute to work on their script for Swiss Army Man and the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of this year. The directing duo was awarded the directing prize in the dramatic category at Sundance for the movie. I knew about the movie from reading about Sundance and I was looking forward to having the chance to see it.
Swiss Army Man follows Paul Dano’s and Daniel Radcliffe’s characters as they travel back to society. And what a journey it is. After his triumphant jet ski ride on a corpse, Hank falls off into the ocean and becomes unconscious for a moment. He awakes to find himself on a beach, excited that he’s closer to civilization now. He grabs the corpse and eventually finds a cave to settle in. On one stormy night, Hank’s hopes began to wane again. The next day, he discovers that the corpse has retained some water from the storm and he drinks from the corpse. Hank also discovers that the corpse can talk and he names the corpse Manny. Manny has no recollection of who he is or anything about life really. So, Hank teaches Manny about life, about the things that sound simple, but have more depth than we seem to realize. What would you or I tell a “living” corpse about happiness or love? We all have various definitions on matters such as those. It’s in moments like these that Swiss Army Man works in some of its gut punches and humor. Manny assumes no one loves Hank and he is garbage because Hank ran away and garbage (as told to Manny by Hank) is what people have no need for. The humor is at the expense of Hank, but many of us have felt that way at some point of our life.
As the journey continues, we get more humor from the explanations of things such as bodily functions (we get some visual gags on those as well), but we also, figure out a reason why Hank left: besides not having a good relationship with his father and probably being teased, there’s this girl that he was too afraid to talk to. Manny discovers this as well and the two try to figure out who she is. In doing so, Hank and Manny develop a close relationship and Manny helps Hank confront some of his fears. Hank does make it home somewhat, but what will he tell people? How will he confront those that he ran away from? Also, Hank might have some not so flattering attributes.
The cinematography and music deserve mentions as well. Most of the lighting in the film seems to be natural, and it works to great effect. The film really gets to show off the beauty of the forest and beach areas of California. In some scenes, the characters seem so small compared to the trees and ocean. On the music side, the score features a cappella from Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe with music from Andy Hull and Robert McDowell. Most of the vocals consists of da’s, la’s, and other sounds, but it is used effectively. There is also a song about a montage that plays during a montage in the film. I really enjoyed Dano’s and Radcliffe’s vocals on the score.
If you are willing to check it out, Swiss Army Man will be one of the most interesting films you will see this year. Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe successfully carry the movie. Dano does some good comedy and vulnerability as Hank and Radcliffe plays a convincing corpse as Manny. Also, I’ll admit it was hard to resist laughing at some of the farting.