Taking politics out of the equation, there are probably a handful of things you’ve heard about nonstop within the past month or so. Some revolve around the Pokémon Go craze, the sexism–both existing and perceived–surrounding the Ghostbusters reboot, and let’s not forget the ever-important Taylor Swift/Tom Hiddleston relationship. Unfortunately, with the constant barrage of media hounding us every day, and big sites aiming for clicks over diversity, it can be easy for some things to get lost in the shuffle. In this case, a little gem by the name of Swiss Army Man, which stars Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe.
Warning: Light Spoilers Ahead
There are films you expect to be mindless fun; others aim to evoke emotion, but ultimately fail, because in the process of trying so hard they lose their humanity; and then you have those that genuinely surprise you as a viewer, and if you haven’t taken the hint, Swiss Army Man falls into the latter category. Often labeled as the “farting corpse” movie, this simplistic tagline does nothing but undermine how truly moving and powerful the film is, not only in its themes and undertones, but in its performances and soundtrack, as well. Indie films only get major buzz if they do something truly revolutionary, like Boyhood, and although Swiss Army Man may not be as ambitious, it’s just as deserving of critical praise.
I know I risk sounding hyperbolic in saying so, but Swiss Army Man works incredibly well because almost every moment has some brief spark of brilliance that takes your breath away. There is never a lull, never a desire for things to progress at a faster pace, and in spite of the film’s complete and utter absurdity, Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (aka Daniels) make you care so much about these two characters. It is both wonderful and adventurous in a way I haven’t experienced viewing any film in recent memory. Daniels’ vision is so clear and focused that they never lose sight of the end goal, and the film’s themes and messages never falter.
Having seen the trailer beforehand, I was surprised to find it essentially showed the opening of the movie, and yet within the first 60 seconds, the question of “how” was already answered. Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded, alone and suicidal, on a desert island. After reaching his wit’s end, he has found no reason to continue prolonging the inevitable, and decided it would be best to hang himself. That is, until a strange body washes up on the shore; the body of what appears to be dead man (Daniel Radcliffe), who we soon learn posses mysterious powers. Unbeknownst to Hank, these same powers are going to be his key for survival, sparking a journey that is both hilarious and full of heart.
If there is one glaring flaw in the film’s narrative it is this: the audience is never given an explanation regarding who Manny (Radcliffe) is, where he came from, or whether or not he’s alive. There are certain scenes and hints that point to the contrary, but the end of the film seems to completely contradict the idea that Manny is, in fact, a dead corpse, and that Hank has lost his mind due not only to being stranded, but also because, as a character, he is incredibly lost and alone in this world (both literally and metaphorically). He feels unloved, unwanted, and when you couple that with what could potentially be weeks of isolation, the only clear answer is insanity. And yet Daniels don’t want it to be that simple.
Truthfully, although it kills the part of me that wants to know all of the answers, I kind of like it that way. I like ambiguity and uncertainty, and though these elements alone don’t make a good movie, Swiss Army Man almost seems better off for it. It keeps the viewer thinking about the film long after the credits have rolled–analyzing certain scenes and conversations, looking for even the slightest bit of clarity. While some films go out of their way to make you feel happy, or sad, or disgusted, Swiss Army Man simply wants to make an impression. Good or bad, it wants to invoke a reaction of some kind, and you’d have to try incredibly hard not to feel something after the fact, even if that something is confusion.
“You just seemed happy, and I wasn’t.”
When you think about it, Swiss Army Man’s main premise of a lost man finding his way home is incredibly simple and traditional, but it’s what Daniels do and say with that idea that makes the film so captivating. In just over 90 minutes, Swiss Army Man has more to say than most Hollywood blockbusters do in two to three hours, and I know it’s impossible to suggest something like that and not sound pretentious, but it’s true. When you peel back all of the layers and find the film’s core, the movie is really about loneliness and our desperate, unexplainable desire for companionship.
Outside of some brief flashes of him on a bus, the viewer never really sees Hank as he was before the accident, but it is easy to gain an understanding of who he is based on the conversations he has with Manny. For the first time in what may be his entire life, Hank has someone to confide in, someone to open up to, someone who won’t judge him; and the funny banter that results in these conversations goes hand in hand with the realization that Hank is an incredibly sad, troubled person who seems to have no one to turn to, no one to miss him when he disappears, or to say they love him before he leaves the house.
It’s completely unsettling to see this man who appears to have closed in on himself and yet is so eager to get back to civilization. He wants to return to his normal life of solitude, even if that means he returns to the pain and heartbreak that comes along with it. Mind you, some of these emotions and feelings are simply implied, but others, like questioning whether it’s even worth it to return to society, are explicitly stated. There’s really nothing for him at home, but he also doesn’t want to be lost forever, leaving him in a kind of emotional limbo. As the film reaches its climax, the extent of his loneliness becomes clear, as the viewer learns of the personal boundaries he crossed as a result of feeling unwanted.
Ironically, parallel to the theme of loneliness is the writers’ continuous questioning of societal standards. Though Manny is an adult man, the memory of his previous life is nonexistent. He’s essentially hit the restart button and must re-learn everything about the world around him. This could have been totally contrived, but it’s handled in such a way that makes it poignant and thought provoking. Because Manny knows absolutely nothing, he questions everything with a child-like curiosity, but he does so with an adult’s consciousness. In the film’s third act, he asks a question that encapsulates his mentality perfectly, “Why do you even wanna go home? It sounds like you can’t do anything there.”
Whether it’s farting in front of other people, talking about masturbation, or just telling people how you feel, Manny doesn’t understand any of the rules of this civilized society we’ve created. He has no understanding of what it means to be “normal,” but unlike a child who is more worried about why they can’t have sweets before dinner, he wants to know why people have to hide who they really are. If you love someone, you should be able to tell them without feeling weird. If you have to fart, you should just be able to fart, regardless of whether or not someone is around you.
Unfortunately, I know words could never do this film justice. Swiss Army Man is truly a one-of-a-kind experience. It’s confident in the story it’s trying to tell, it embraces its absurdity head on, and it doesn’t really care if your only takeaway at the end was that the film was weird. Sure, the movie is ridiculous, but does that mean it can’t also be brilliant? It’s easy to label it as the “farting corpse” movie, but if I’m being honest, not only is it funnier than most comedies that come out, it also has more heart and soul than most dramatic films, too. After seeing it twice, I left the theater feeling exactly the same as I did the first time around: completely bewildered as to how it managed to be so incredible.