Swiss Army Man: Refreshing, Farty, and Full of Hope

Swiss Army Man

(2016)
Dir.: Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan

 

 

 

 

If you follow film news in any non-casual way, you've heard of the film Swiss Army Man. Its controversial Sundance debut early this year prompted a divisive response from early critics. I mean divisive in every sense of the word. See, the film's very first screening not only prompted walkouts, boos and scorn, but also praise, a standing ovation and good vibes. Over the past few months that reception has not changed in its polarity, since it still lodges securely in opposite ends of people's "enjoyment" spectrums, but one thing is clear: Swiss Army Man has gotten audiences talking. Its premise and the trailer set a clear tone and a focus on stylish absurd comedy, the bravery of which either piques immense interest or entirely turns off the viewer. Only A24, indie film production company extraordinaire (and saviors of cinema as they are in this day and age) could fathom financing and distributing such an insane, uninhibited film in this landscape. The question remains: is Swiss Army Man a film worth seeing?

I'll be honest here: whether or not you should see Swiss Army Man completely relies on your ability to suspend disbelief, as well as your aptness for abandoning any affinity for rigid realism. If you watch the trailer for the film or hear the premise and you're immediately taken aback or otherwise disenchanted with the idea of watching such a film, then take a pass on this one. Swiss Army Man does not stray from its own DNA or attempt to relay some grand justification for itself. That being said, if you're in the mood for a smart, surreal, and poignant comedy with a strong emotional core, compelling leads, an incredible soundtrack, gorgeous visuals, and a lack of any kind of pretentious messages in favor of addressing sincere and universal themes, you will agree that Swiss Army Man may just be the best film of 2016. It's certainly the most earnest.

The film starts as Paul Dano's character, Hank, attempts suicide, but as he tries to hang himself, he sees a Daniel Radcliffe-shaped corpse, whom he later names Manny, laying across from him. Having been marooned alone for what is implied to be several days or weeks, he then decides to take the corpse with him as he tries to make it back home in order to return to society. From this simple premise, larger themes take hold, like how to deal with loneliness and how to learn to love yourself before you are able to love others. Other things Swiss Army Man tackles are relatively unexplored in most contemporary film, like the growth of character. This film explores character experimentally, not just verbally. Body language (and humor) is a character in itself in this film (who knew farts could be legitimate devices for character exploration?). It examines communication through facial expressions and the language we use when we want to woo a potential romantic partner. Verbally, some of the film's sweetest moments come from conversations about sex, masturbation, and similarly taboo topics. These sequences could feel cheap and unearned, but they arrive at a point in the film when you care deeply about the characters, partially through the honest and good-witted writing, and partially through Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe's committed performances. While the more emotional elements of the film are handled well, I cannot think of another comedy post-Blazing Saddles or Monty Python and the Holy Grail that uses physical comedy as effectively, let alone as core devices of narrative.

I am confident in saying that no other film has used farts as a narrative device as well, if even at all.

The screenplay is not the only characteristic of this film that exudes artistic vision. Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe's performances are the glue that holds this joyously absurd film together. Both actors commit to their roles--Dano with the desperate, lonely romantic, riddled with psychosis and visions of a friend he never had in his corpsey compatriot; Radcliffe method-acting his way through the film's runtime, moving jerkily and unnaturally, since he is, after all, deceased--and their chemistry proves fantastic. Their performances quickly make you care about their characters and what happens to them, even as they discuss the ins and outs of human bodily functions and sexual relations. In the hands of unproven or unqualified actors, this film would crumble, but luckily, both men prove up to the task of performing their difficult roles with sincerity and grace. The two leads will make you care about what happens to a farting corpse and a runaway coward. They not only do their jobs; they excel. I'm not one to particularly care deeply for films getting awards of accomplishment, but I do hope that their performances are recognized in years to come, either in cult film circles or in a Criterion-like capacity.

Speaking of award-worthy film accomplishments, both the cinematography and the score also deserve their fair shares of acclaim. Most of the film takes place in a forest, and the natural landscape, with what looks to be mostly natural lighting (take that, The Revenant), adds beauty to the comedy displayed. The film's use of editing as well as its choices in shot composition seem more similar to Korean films. In fact, many of Manny's magical corpse-superpower sequences feel lifted straight from Chan-wook Park films, particularly his more fantasy-driven efforts like Thirst or I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK. Similarly, the few but effective speedy action sequences owe influence to films like The Good, the Bad and the Weird. These are great influences to have, and even though the cinematography owes to films such as these, Swiss Army Man never outright steals or fires a shot-for-shot homage toward its influences. What is so remarkable about these subtle nods is that I think they may make the film feel even more original and magical than if it were just an island by itself.

Even though the premise of Swiss Army Man may immediately alienate a certain portion of moviegoers who expect grounded narrative and a thorough sense of linearity or any otherwise plain-spoken rulebook, it triumphs over its strange opening and quickly turns into a film of emotional resonance, hilarious dialogue, and a gripping cinematic vision that rivals any other independent success. I have a feeling that this film could go down as this generation's Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind (though admittedly far less romantic and much more focused on the self). Not since Her in early 2014 have I felt this elated about not only a film, but a thoroughly invigorating display of cinematic wonder. Providing a sense of wonder amidst the outrageous surreal sequences is something that many films of this ilk lack, and Swiss Army Man proves to be true movie magic. This is the kind of film the industry needs more of. I highly recommend giving it a chance, even if you find the premise hard to take seriously. It may surprise you.