Sundance’s most controversial pick is one of the most daring and inventive films of the year.
Open on a bearded Paul Dano, stranded, attempting an ill-advised hanging. This is Hank. Minutes later, the pale corpse of Daniel Radcliffe washes up on the shore of the deserted beach. He farts. This is Manny. He will be Hank’s best friend — and yours — for the next 90 minutes in this uncanny adventure full of loneliness, testosterone, and friendship. This is Swiss Army Man and it is an utter delight.
By now, most everyone reading this knows Swiss Army Man’s bizarre focus is on this dying man and his “multi-tool guy,” who uses his “magical” bodily functions — such as farts and erections — to save the day. The disgusting twist on the “man tries to survive, grows beard, than shaves” subgenre (made popular by Castaway) may turn some off, but gives way to a tale about the burden of the male experience. As Hank uses Manny to guide him though the wilderness, he teaches him as sentience flows through Manny. The Daniels (as directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert call their collective artistic work) built a world that creates its own fantasy and leaves it up to the viewer what to interpret and what to believe.
It is brilliant form for a narrative that is so strictly about a singular character relationship. As Hank teaches Manny the usefulness of sex, he also teaches the perils of love. Manny is a child. In the way where most of the film’s punchlines come from that Hank needing to state the obvious. Because he needs to state it to himself. Radcliffe’s performance is great on its own — undeniably his best to date. His awkward idiosyncratic speech pattern and incomprehension of social patterns highlight the weirdness of what Hank asks of him. Beyond the naive simplicity, though, lies a mirror through which the main character sees himself. It’s the finest aspect of the film.
The thematic core of it is not muddled or lost on the Daniels. It is clear as day. But the way Hank and Manny stumble through the world as one, allows Hank to breathe through Manny. In an almost Spike Jonze-esque way their consciousness become one. There is a remarkable scene (bears are all the rage) where you can see the dark path Swiss Army Man could have gone and it doesn’t. What follows feels narratively as compelling as the prior 70 minutes, but the pacing of the ending is rocky and almost doesn’t leave enough up to the imagination.
Male ego and macho humor dominate the film’s palette. Dick jokes are funny for the same reason Apatow can get away with it— honesty. The majority of humor is physical. A tight script Swiss Army Man may have, but it won’t win any awards for it. The Daniels prove themselves as great directors of comedy and comedy actors. The interplay between Radcliffe and Dano shows the impressive range of both and why one without the other would not be able to keep the movie afloat. The jokes likely won’t alienate anyone truly invested in seeing this great work out, the perspective may.
What pulls Hank through is the thought of seeing this woman. And Hank is by all means a creep. He has never spoken a word to her, and Manny, possibly interpreted as a psychotic episode meant to cleanse Hank’s mind, begins to fall for her. Ignoring the corpse turned horny teen, the driving factor of the plot is male desire. Specifically as an outsider— a weirdo. As someone who fits that demographic in ways, the film hit me — hard — but it’s safe to say women and groups with bigger fish to fry may not agree. I don’t think the film falls apart at this. The film is in constant reference to how weird it is, and how it is okay to be weird, oscillating between self acceptance and self admittance. It doesn’t just forgive creepy teens for being weird, it tries to push them towards a more full-formed adult form. That’s admirable, even when it’s foreign.
An element of Swiss Army Man that everyone will enjoy is the sound design. Dare I say amazing? Both Radcliffe and Dano provide vocals to renditions of old classics redone with Manchester Orchestra. They sound good too. The louder, more traditional tracks form from these. They produce a cool sound that brings a sense of the epic to the film. Gives it more scale. Everything sounds as monumental and important as the inside of Hank’s head in the moment and every soaring musical moment worked.
Swiss Army Man doesn’t let its own inherent strangeness and flaws hold it back from being something profound and heartwarming. So do yourself a favor, get over the farts, and go see the best film of the summer.
Swiss Army Man is in theaters now.
(For another cool spin on the castaway genre check out this gem)