MOVIE REVIEW: Swiss Army Man
“SWISS ARMY MAN”—4 STARS
As ambiguous as this sounds, your love or hate of the new film and Sundance favorite, “Swiss Army Man,” will say something about your inner quirkiness, mindset, and, most of all, your heart. Packed with detail and imagination beyond belief, this film defies classification and destroys the hyperbole, pretense, and comparative euphemisms that normally define films about friendship, the genre of buddy movies, and even unconventional screen love stories. Movies that tug our heartstrings with a smile normally kill us with kindness. The polarizing “Swiss Army Man” kills us with weirdness. This film lets its WTF freak flag fly and encourages you to do the same.
Paul Dano is Hank, a man starving and stranded on a tiny deserted island. One of his few remaining possessions is a cell phone with a dying battery and an unexplained picture of a beautiful woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) he admires. At his wits end, he has decided to end it all and prepares to hang himself on a makeshift noose. Gathering the composure to do the deed, Hank suddenly spots a handsome and well-dressed corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) that has washed up on the beach. He interrupts his suicide attempt to investigate and discovers that the body has amazing abilities, not the least of which is explosive flatulence. With soaring title music, the wonderment begins as Hanks uses that body like a jet ski to ride away from his purgatory and arrive back on the mainland.
Discovering and creating more fantastical and grotesque uses and abilities of the body, Hank names the corpse “Manny” and begins to converse with it like a newfound friend. As Hank’s search for civilization grows with discoveries, pitfalls, and dalliances, Manny becomes a vessel for his personality and innermost thoughts and begins to talk back. They share their musings and dreams on this isolated journey through life. The two carve out an imaginative existence recreating memories and playing out dream scenarios within the uncivilized forest and its natural hazards.
For this writer, so much of “Swiss Army Man” feels straight out of Ambrose Bierce’s 1891 fable “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which was adapted in an Oscar-winning French short film and introduced to domestic audiences as a segment on “The Twilight Zone” in 1964. You feel like you a watching a dream, a life that is flashing before your eyes, right before the noose tightens and the elation ends. The film carries an immensely fragile sense of hope that teeters ever so brilliantly on the edge between sympathy and madness. The dynamics of friendship, survival, and love all shine in hues unique and adventurous from any peer. If you can wrap your head around it, “Swiss Army Man” is wholly compelling and whimsically crafted.
Winner of the Directing Award at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, “Swiss Army Man” was conceived by the creative team of music video directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively known as Daniels. They have unearthed a compelling tale of adventure and performance. Paul Dano has been the go-to actor of his generation to play the pathetic introvert bursting with agitation with his roles in “Love and Mercy,” “There Will Be Blood,” and “Ruby Sparks” among others. If you want a pensive sad-sack with dreams, you call Paul Dano. He outdoes his resume here with an amazing depiction of a character mixing frantic depression with a craving for human connection. Daniel Radcliffe, far removed from waving wands, conquers the physical difficulty of conveying a wealth of spirit out of frozen facial expressions and stunted utterances that grow to jovial conversation. “Weekend at Bernie’s” has nothing on this performance. Together, the pair makes pure magic out of obscure circumstances.
Where the canyon between embrace and disdain will be carved for “Swiss Army Man” is in its content. The pervasive oddity present every scenario is a tough sell for general audiences. To nitpick, the Daniels go to the flatulence and erection wells more than one too many times for repetitive cheap giggles. Apart from the commendable imagination that oozes from its living and decaying pores, there are many moments where one could easily see dullness and emptiness. Some might step back, marvel on the absurdity of it all, and not see a prevailing point. Such would be fair as this film is a challenge and a leap of faith with a different reward or reaction for everyone. It tests your capacity for mixing the bizarre with the compassionate as to how you are willing to view the world.
LESSON #1: IMAGINATION INNATELY COMES WITH STRANGENESS—Our imaginations and hallucinations take us to strange places, period. You might call a man imaging himself using a farting corpse as a jet ski weird, but there is a good chance a few of your own dreams are just as ghastly, kooky, outlandish, flaky or preternatural. Our minds are that strange and powerful. Call it par for the course and embrace it.
LESSON #2: THE PROSPECT OF DEATH MAKES ONE APPRECIATE LIFE—Like “Wilson” the volleyball in “Cast Away,” giving imagined life to Manny out of death allows Hank to appreciate life, especially his own. The fact that death is the ultimate ending is one aspect that makes life so precious. You get a big dose of that from Manny and Hank.
LESSON #3: WE ALL WANT SOMEONE TO LOVE AND TO BE LOVED—Happiness comes in many forms and one’s life can be affirmed by any one of those incarnations, be it romantic love or friendly companionship. We are a social species that was not meant to go through life alone or unattended. Beyond all of Hank’s fanciful reflection, we find he’s been without love of any form for far too long.