Review: ‘Swiss Army Man’ is Boundary-Pushing Storytelling at Its Finest

By July 1, 2016
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By now, you’ve probably already heard of Swiss Army Man, though, you might be more familiar with it as the “farting corpse movie starring Daniel Radcliffe” as so many article headlines have summarized it as being, including some by yours truly. To try and contain Swiss Army Man down into about three words that are combined to make people curious though, doesn’t do this movie justice, and it feels strange to say that a movie where it’s main voice of reason is a dead, talking body, is not only one of the most alive films of the year so far, but also one of the most human.

It opens with a simple prologue, in which Paul Dano’s Hank is preparing to hang himself on the deserted island he’s found himself trapped on. When we meet him, he’s literally standing on the edge of oblivion, one foot off the cooler that’s lifting him barely into the air, but just high enough to do the trick, with a string tied taught around his neck. He sings himself a small tune and looks up to see a dead body washed up on the shore. This is Manny, played by Daniel Radcliffe, and as Hank soon learns, while he’s dead, Manny might just be the best thing to happen to Hank as he uses Manny’s high-pressure farts to rocket himself away, riding atop Manny like a jet ski as the main titles literally blast onto the screen.

These opening few minutes are about as daring and striking as anything else you’ll see from contemporary cinema today, and introduce you instantly to the style of the film’s enigmatic directing duo, the Daniels, a pair who have made a name for themselves in the music video world and make their feature debut here. From there on, Hank and Manny reach the shore of a beach on the edge of civilization. All that’s standing between them and people now, is a maze-like forest littered with the forgotten things that we leave behind on camping trips or have blown there from the highway. As Manny and Hank begin their mutual journey back to society though, Swiss Army Man endeavors down one of the most ambitious, profound, and flawed journeys you’ll likely see in the theatre all year.

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Paul Dano, the go-to guy to play a lovable weirdo, manages to balance Hank’s desperation, frustration, and regret well throughout the film, as Hank begins to learn more and more about the strange dead body he’s bringing with him. These include its ability to store gallons of rain water in its body, bite through rough materials, shoot objects out of its mouth like a machine gun, use its boners as a compass, and even rocket into the sky with its atomic farts. Dano plays these revelations with the kind of surprise and curiosity that the movie needs, while also acceptingly moving forward at a pace matching with his character’s increasing desperation. Even when Manny begins to talk and ask questions, as if he were still alive.

Daniel Radcliffe gives possibly the best performance of his career as Manny, nailing the character’s physical stuntedness and shortcomings, while also using his glazed eyes and slack jaw to evoke a certain innocent curiosity that’s infectious to both us and Hank. His character’s eventual heartbreak and realization of how that kind of innocence can be misinterpreted is one of the most emotionally intelligent moments of the year so far, that can be summed up in four, heartbreaking words, “I’m disgusting, aren’t I?”

Now, I won’t sugar coat it: this is a strange movie. But that’s the whole point of it. Swiss Army Man has things to say and it says them in thought-provoking, but none preachy ways as Manny and Hank discuss already uncomfortable topics like masturbation, sex, love, loneliness, friendship, trust, and of course, farts. It does them in such a way that not only made me uncomfortable because of how they were talking about them, but that they were even talking about them at all. For example, what’s worse? The fact that we can fall in love with a girl on the bus that we’ve never talked to, just because of the way the light hit her face and the dress she was wearing, or that we’re often too afraid to actually do anything about it. Then, what happens when she’s staring you straight in the face, and asking how you know who she is.

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Swiss Army Man is an ambitious movie, and the way that it so confidently handles some of its more terrifying obstacles, is nothing short of admirable. With that being said, it’s not flawless. There are moments when it’s points can become too muddled, or its message can be too bluntly stated, and it’s raw while also polished feel can be jarring at times. But the Daniels use every tool they have at their disposal to help tell their story here though, including the odd, and breathtaking score by Manchester Orchestra, which is a completely acapella score, made up of just voices, snapping, clapping, and whistling. It’s truly unlike anything I’ve heard in a film before, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t already added it to my personal playlists.

I’d also like to applaud them for not feeling the need to explain Manny either, something that will probably frustrate some people, but leaves the film better off for it. After all, if they took the time to explain everything that was happening, it would not only slow the movie down, but also take away from its point. Whether you like the way it chooses to convey it or not.

Dano and Radcliffe hold the weight of this movie and story on their shoulders with ease though, constantly having to be intimately close to each other, as Dano has to physically move Radcliffe whenever something needs to be done. It all comes together in one climax so heartbreaking and beautiful, that I couldn’t have stopped the tear from rolling down my eye as it was happening even if I had wanted to. It’s strange, messy and raw, and you’ll love it for those very reasons.

This is one of those rare times when I can say that Swiss Army Man is truly unlike any movie you’ve ever seen. It’s a bold and ambitious project, directed with the kind of fiery passion that only a pair of first time directors can bring. It’s a movie that forces its strangeness upon you, and then dares to ask the question of what’s actually stranger – the disgust we feel when we see each other’s truly weird selves (farts and all), or the fact that we feel the need to hide it altogether?

Swiss Army Man is in theatres everywhere now.

Alex Welch

Alex Welch

Alex dreams of meeting a girl with a yellow umbrella, and spends too much time* staring at a movie screen. His vocabulary consists mostly of movie quotes and 80s song lyrics. *Debatable