SWISS ARMY MAN
Directors: Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Cast: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Richard Gross
MPAA Rating: (for language and sexual material)
Running Time: 1:35
Release Date: 6/24/16 (limited); 7/1/16 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik | July 1, 2016
It's difficult to decide what's strangest: that this film is about a man who uses a decomposing corpse to survive in the woods, that a film with such a wildly absurd premise would try to address questions about the meaning of life, or that it kind of succeeds in exploring those ideas with humor and compassion. Here's one of those rare instances in which it's not hyperbole to state that you probably have never seen a movie like this one.
Swiss Army Man feels as if it's always ready to buckle under the weight of its oddness. Yes, it is about a lonely man who finds himself lost—first on a desert island and then in a forest—and who gradually develops a close friendship with a dead body. How does this man get from the island to the woods? It feels wrong to give away one of the film's most decidedly weird moments. Then again, it's not as if the film, written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (credited simply as "the Daniels"), doesn't have an abundant helping of equally weird or even weirder moments after this.
The guy's name is Hank (Paul Dano), and he's stranded on that desert island in the middle of nowhere. The film opens with his floating messages for help to civilization, with the carrying devices becoming more elaborate as time passes. There's probably no message as succinct or bluntly honest as an early one written on a paper boat: "I'm so bored."
When we first see Hank, he's preparing to end his life by way of a noose tied to a tree many, many feet above the ground. He spots a figure on the beach near the water. Realizing that it's a person, he goes down to the beach (In a case of figurative and literal gallows humor, he nearly, accidentally hangs himself in his haste). There, Hank discovers that it's a man's corpse (Daniel Radcliffe), and to add further insult to the whole thing, the body is releasing gas with regularity. Now Hank can't even die without the flatulent sounds coming from the corpse.
This will, undoubtedly, offend or even horrify some, but the instinct to be repulsed by the scenario—and every odd thing that follows it—is kept relatively at bay by the way the Daniels favor comic fantasy over physiological reality. In case it isn't already clear by the fact that the subject of a farting corpse is in play, the comedy is of a juvenile variety. Just in case further evidence is necessary, Hank gets off the island by riding the body like a jet ski—propelled across the water by the powerful, noxious release of gas.
The film does, if you can believe it, get stranger still. Hank dubs the corpse "Manny" and begins to have one-sided conversations with it. He finds practical uses for the soulless shell, such as the way it collects rainwater (leading to him to use the body like a demented water fountain) and how the teeth can be used like a piece of flint to light a fire (There are more, shown in a montage, but let's leave it at these two). Eventually, Manny becomes part of the conversation.
The central question, one would imagine, would be whether Manny's apparent resurrection is a figment of Hank's delusional imagination or something that has, somehow, actually happened. Perhaps the primary reason that the film works is that the Daniels don't care either way (That they do care during the film's climax might explain why the final moments feel so underwhelming). They have far more important questions to ask.
Manny has no memory of what life was like when he had it. The corpse learns like a child, and with each new concept that Hank explains, another one arises. All of Hank's lessons are framed through his life experience, from pieces of popular culture to his own personal history. Manny reacting to a picture of a swimsuit model, for example, leads to a discussion of masturbation, which leads to Hank's insecurity on the issue of sex, which leads to queries about love. That brings us to Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a woman whose photograph Hank has on his cellphone. Manny finds himself drawn to the photo, and the result of his obvious sexual attraction to her is best left insinuated: Hank finds himself in possession of a magical compass, which always points due Sarah whenever it's, well, activated.
The point is that, as Hank teaches Manny what it means to be alive, the actual living man starts to realize that he might not have as much experience in that department as he might expect. Manny, with his appendages connected to an elaborate pulley system that turns him into a marionette, becomes a way for Hank to reenact his own failures and to imagine himself overcoming them. The notion that he has to be this close to death in order to realize how to live is not lost.
The portrait of Hank that develops is one of a man who's emotionally repressed on account of a strict father (Richard Gross) and the death of his loving mother. Dano's performance is wise to emphasize that vulnerability, especially in light of the troubling connection to Sarah that eventually reveals itself. Radcliffe might appear to have the "easier" job, given that he's playing dead, but consider the difficulty of his task—to convince us that Manny is physically stiff but mentally active, without ever making us doubt that this character has, on a fundamental level, ceased to be.
The film is curiously funny and sad in equal measure. Swiss Army Man is different. That's for sure, but its oddity has a humane goal that prevents the strangeness from becoming oppressive or off-putting.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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