Swiss Army Man balances humor and death for lighthearted existential enlightenment — a film review
June 29, 2016
The hook that will attract most people to Swiss Army Man is how former Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe fares playing a corpse for the length of a feature film. The draw can range from childhood crush intrigue to a more subconscious allure of celebrity transcending death. But what it all comes down to is that final word and how we personally relate with its inevitablity. With their debut feature film, directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (a.k.a Daniels), who also wrote the film’s script together, toy with the narcissism of life and the humility of death via a funny, simple premise about a man lost at sea named Hank (Paul Dano) who befriends a dead body.
This body, which Hank comes to name Manny, saves Hank from hanging himself. Hank’s desperation doesn’t come for lack of food, though he is hungry, but — according to messages on makeshift toy boats made of trash — lack of company. Tired of his loneliness on a tiny desert island that looks like something out of a clichéd cartoon, Hank sings to himself to work up the courage to jump, until he sees in the distance that someone has washed ashore. Thinking he has been blessed with a companion, Hank springs toward the corpse, inadvertently hanging himself, anyway. But thankfully his makeshift noose fails … or does it? For what follows is a strange fantastical story of a man who finds salvation in a dead body, which cannot only act as a motorboat that gets him to land and a rifle for hunting meat but also leads him to personal self-actualization.
Manny is nothing more than a bloated corpse, long pale and deceased. As corpses do, they accumulate gas as they rot from the inside out. Hank tries some CPR, but all he gets is the expulsion of flatulence. However, these farts turn out to be so powerful that Hank can use them as propulsion to head out to sea and hopefully reach dry land. He hops on Manny’s back, and they leave the island behind, Hank ecstatically howling with success. Wrapped in this zany image, accompanied by blissful, Animal Collective-like music by a pair of the members of Atlanta indie folk artists Manchester Orchestra, is also the silliness of life and death and how closely tied they are on a conceptual level. One means nothing without the other.
The play between life and death throughout the movie is confrontational and humorous. Anyone leaving the theater without considering their own mortality and if they are living a truly fulfilled life is not paying attention. Some of the jokes can be distracting, but their levity is essential. Scheinert and Kwan, who employed quite a gimmick with his crotch in the “Turn Down for What” video by DJ Snake and Lil Jon, employ a similar trick on Radcliffe’s body and make it a key plot device, as Manny gradually becomes more alive with Hank’s investment in him. Hank takes the role of teacher to Manny, as the once lifeless body begins to re-experience life. The possibility always exists that Hank may be talking to himself, but it’s the power of metaphor that gives Swiss Army Man its grace.
The film is packed with equal parts humor and the sort of high-minded themes that more serious directors like Alejandro González Iñárritu and Terrence Malick have more mixed results with. That the Daniels can subvert the gravity of existential concerns with fart jokes (not to mention some shots of Radcliff’s hairy butt cheeks that can’t be unseen), speaks to a strength inherit to comedy to connote the greater questions of life. For all that might sound dull about a man dragging a corpse through the wilderness with no other people around, the directors, who won the directing prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, have a light manner that keeps the audience engaged with this play between base humor and philosophical perceptiveness.
This cannot be achieved without dialogue, so Hank and Manny indeed get to talking. What becomes apparent is Hank has isolated himself with a mixture of self-loathing and narcissism. An image on a cellphone of a beautiful woman and her relationship to the two men is the film’s glue in a subplot that helps to physically awaken Manny while also spiritually awaken Hank, as he confronts his past lack of success with the opposite sex, which has left him so unfulfilled.
The Daniels have a way with words as well as images to keep things light. Like clowns bounding on a tightrope over an abyss, they constantly inspire laughter in the face of death. You are aware of both through much of the film. The film’s actors do fine work, sacrificing their egos to talk of scatology and masturbation while embracing action that might seem too daft to take seriously. But the fact that the directors seamlessly toggle between lifeless props of Manny and the actor speaks to Radcliffe’s strength to play dead, as well.
Despite its sly entertainment value, Swiss Army Man feels in service of something rather grand. All that we put into living and it all ends with something as final as death. Doesn’t that make life a joke? Like flatualance, there is something else every living person in this world has in common, they will die, decompose and turn to nothing, or as Hank and Manny prefer to say: shit. Yet this seeming nothingness is something. We are our stories, and it’s up to us to seize them and embrace them, and there’s something spiritual in that.
Swiss Army Man runs 95 minutes and is rated R. It opens this Friday in our Miami area at O Cinema Wynwood as well as some area multiplexes. For screenings in your part of the U.S., visit this link. A24 hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review. All images are courtesy of the studio.
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