Review: Swiss Army Man (2016)

Swiss Army Man

© A24

© A24

Today's Hollywood has a penchant for the big-budget blockbuster event. We live in a world where sequels and remakes dominate the cinematic frontier, all in the hopes of cashing in on a previously-established intellectual property. These tentpole pictures do enough to whet the appetite of the average theatergoer, but it feels as though there's a groundswell of individuals clamoring for a taste of some original fare. So many fresh and exciting ideas and concepts fall by the wayside simply because they cannot compete with the big-budget machine that churns out reboot after sequel after remake. When something original does break through and permeate the public consciousness, attention must be given. We all crave these new stories, but riddle me this: is there a limit to just how "original" they can be before we turn against them?

Swiss Army Man opens with Hank (Paul Dano), a suicidal man stranded on a tiny deserted island, as he readies himself to end his life. He glances across the beach to catch one last glimpse of this world and notices a body has rolled onto the sand only a few yards away. He stumbles across the beach only to find a very dead (and very flatulent) corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) who proceeds to expel bodily gasses in such a way that he propels himself through the surf. Seeing his opportunity for escape, Hank hops on the man and rides him to the mainland where the pair's true adventure begins. 

Before I delve into my thoughts on the film, let's talk a little bit of Swiss Army Man background. The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January, and news immediately broke that a large portion of the audience attendees walked out of the theater before the film had finished. Normally, something like this would be a bad omen, but the people who managed to sit through the film in its entirety began to give it a slew of praise. Clearly, this movie was going to be divisive, and something about that drew me into the idea. I waited patiently for the film to hit theaters in the hopes of seeing something seemingly original, no matter the concerns of those who had left prematurely. I just wasn't quite prepared for the experience that is Swiss Army Man.

This film does have a bit of an elephant in the room with the aforementioned flatulence, so let's just get this out of the way. I'm sure plenty of you might be turned off by the thought of sitting through a film with consistent low-brow humor centered around a slew of bodily functions, and I for one needed about ten to fifteen minutes to commit myself to sticking this one out. Our audience was less fortunate: of the twelve people in the theater, six left before the film had concluded, with the first casualties lasting less than five minutes. Again, this movie is divisive. Aside from a few moments in film history, I generally despise toilet humor such as what's thrown our way at lightning speed in Swiss Army Man, but I urge all of you to try to push through the slog of farts and erections because the rest of the film is more than worth the suffering. 

Swiss Army Man is an unconventional story of friendship that uses an incredibly outlandish premise as a starting point for its ideas. Shortly after discovering the rotting corpse, Dano's Hank begins to see it seemingly come to life before his very eyes. We as the audience as never truly told whether the things we're seeing are actually happening or if they're the product of some starvation-induced fever dream, but that's part of the intrigue of the film. As they continue their journey, Hank grows to know Manny (the name the corpse gives himself) and begins to reintroduce him to the world and its realities. The two battle and bond as they trek through the wilderness together, learning and debating the deeper concepts of life. 

For the most part, Swiss Army Man works, and a large portion of its success rests heavily on our two leads. Paul Dano continues to cement himself as one of today's best young actors, but it's his counterpart who truly deserves recognition. Daniel Radcliffe continues to push himself further away from his Harry Potter visage; taking the plunge and playing a reimagined corpse was a gutsy move, but his boyish innocence works well opposite Dano's manic-depression.

The chemistry between the two keeps the film going even when the story falters from time to time. This movie is grandiose, and it takes quite a few shots at being something of a transcendent experience. Over the course of the film, Hank and Manny have discussions about the meanings of everyday life, and each moment feels as though it's meant to be more profound than the last. Unfortunately, many of these conversations fail to hit the mark. In a way, the film's reaches further than it can grasp, and although it's makes a valiant effort, it just doesn't hit the messages home. 

If the film truly succeeds in any respect, it's in its visual style. Directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert have spent much of their career working on music videos, and you can see that translation in their feature film debut here. There's a manic energy that paces the film, and the very look of it all feels wondrous and magical. Their use of music throughout the film adds to the joyous atmosphere, and I have found myself running the music through my mind since I saw the film last week. You'll be hard-pressed to find another film this year that encompasses such a spirit.

At the beginning of this review, I asked whether a film could be too original for your everyday audience, and I think that Swiss Army Man is certainly toeing the line. This is a weird movie, but it embraces that weirdness and to an extent champions it. I walked out of the theater not knowing just what to think, but the more I allow myself to process everything I saw, the more I'm coming around to the brilliance of Swiss Army Man. Is it a perfect film? Not by any means. It has the flaws that you would expect from a first-time directing duo, but it also stands as an impressive debut. The film itself is a feel-good movie that's moderately accessible, but it's going to take some internal convincing to get yourself to sit through it. It doesn't play by your normal film conventions, and it has to be forgiven and applauded for that. The Daniels, as the directing team calls themselves, have made something truly unique and, at times, breathtaking. Swiss Army Man is the perfect anti-comfort food type of film: it's hitting all the themes and tones you would expect from a movie about friendship, but it's doing them in a way unlike any movie you've seen before. I've certainly never seen anything quite like it. In a way, it's letting it's freak flag fly, and in a day and age where we all have something that makes us self-conscious, Swiss Army Man is the perfect antidote.