'Swiss Army Man'
‘Swiss Army Man’ is a deeply strange movie. It’s utterly unique, except for how it plays on the expectations set up by a cavalcade of movies that have come before. Part slapstick ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ goof, part body horror, part indie loner dramedy, part whimsy, part tragedy, and all fart joke, there’s simply nothing else quite like the wacko vision that filmmakers Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert have dreamed up.
That’s both its greatest strength and weakness depending on your point of view. Those who love it will be in awe at all the strange diversions and themes that the film touches upon. Those who loathe it will be frustrated by the way the film tries to be so many things at once. And likely those that loathe it won’t stick through to the end. It’s heads in a specific direction that’s very deliberately difficult to predict.
Things kick off with the sight of a bearded Paul Dano on a deserted island with a noose around his neck. It’s unclear how long the guy has been there, but clearly long enough that he’s out of options. Just before he’s about to end it all, Hank (Dano) sees a body appear on the shore that’s none other than Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe. He races to the beach and is disappointed to see that the body is clearly dead, and a little surprised when it starts farting excessively. In fact, the farts are so powerful that Hank is able to ride the sputtering corpse like a jet ski to the mainland. That’s how the movie starts, and it only gets stranger from there.
The corpse soon proves to be the Swiss Army Man from the title, providing all sorts of welcome services to help Hank find his way home. He spits out water like a faucet to keep Hank hydrated. His boner acts like a compass. He can shoot objects from his mouth to hunt. The body is everything. More importantly, he becomes a friend. The corpse starts talking, but with no memory of his past life, he proves to be a sounding board for Hank’s lonely existence. The guy spills his guts about a life lived by fear that kept him from doing anything and knowing anyone.
To keep their journey through the wilderness interesting, Hank starts building mock structures of his former life and staging everything from memories of the girl he secretly loved to recreations of ‘Jurassic Park’. Essentially, the guy learns to live by making friends with the dead, and it’s just as whimsical as it sounds… until it isn’t. There’s always a dirty joke around the corner and none of the twisted implications of the tale are lost on the filmmakers.
Co-writers/directors Kwan and Scheinert (known collectively as The Daniels) shoot their movie with a restless visual energy that suits the ever-evolving tone. It’s very heightened (obviously), with a Michel Gondry sense of childish imagination run amuck. This extends from the homespun shelters and stages that Hank creates through to the camerawork that operates under the motto, “No shot is too strange.” It’s a hyperactive movie that feels like it’s been shouted at you by overenthusiastic kids who just dreamed up the strangest tale they could imagine. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. While some might find the tone obnoxious, the special set of weirdoes that The Daniels designed their movie for (and presumably also who they are) will be elated by the twists and turns along the way.
While the note that the filmmakers play most consistently is one of life affirming whimsy, they also always slip something dark beneath the surface. When Dano’s character reveals that he’s obsessed with a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) he’s never spoken to, it’s clear this won’t be a lonely-loser-grows-a-backbone kind of story. The guy is clearly damaged and downright creepy (his best friend is a corpse, after all), but because the filmmakers keep the pacing so fast, the tone so comically whimsical, and the performances so heightened, there’s rarely much time available to contemplate the implications of all the strange things happening. The audience is trapped through the cracked perspective of the protagonist, so the movie plays like a wild salvation adventure.
No matter how creative and wild these filmmakers might be (and they do indeed prove to be remarkably talented for first-timers), the flick ultimately lives and dies on its actors. This is predominantly a two-hander, and if even one of those hands failed, the whole thing would have sunk and stunk. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Daniel Radcliffe has probably the showiest role, playing broken-back slapstick and deadpan innocence as a thoroughly lovable corpse. It’s hardly the sort of role one would expect from a star, but that just speaks to the eccentric choices the actor has made since ‘Harry Potter’. This is likely his wildest and most memorable turn as an adult to date.
Somehow, Dano is even better. He does the lovable naïf thing well, but never loses sight of the damaged human beneath the whimsical fantasy. The character is clearly a little off and the actor is clever enough to gently pepper in those moments of nuttiness to keep the character charming despite his loving relationship with a dead body. It’s a tricky balancing act and a tougher trick to pull off than Radcliffe’s deadpan delights. Thankfully, the Daniels got one of the finest actors of his generation to carry their movie and Dano nails it.
The tricky thing about reviewing ‘Swiss Army Man’ is that the movie is defined by a payoff that changes everything that came before. Exactly what that is shouldn’t be spoiled and I wouldn’t dare to do it. Even though this movie sounds like the kind of feel-good whimsical tripe with superficial hints of darkness that defines the very worst of mainstream indie comedies, The Daniels have made a far more complicated movie than first impressions suggest. In fact, even though this might seem like an ideal movie for someone who considers the sweetly dysfunctional ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ the height of dramedy, ‘Swiss Army Man’ is in fact more suited to viewers who dismiss that brand of easy life affirming fantasy. You just have to stick it out to see what The Daniels have really done.
Apparently, the film was plagued with walkouts when it premiered in Sundance and was met with mixed reviews. I have a feeling that those who left might have liked the ending the most and those who stuck around likely felt duped. This is a far more complicated movie than it seems. It’s very self-aware about the extreme places it reaches for emotions and laughs. Revealing more would be unfair, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that if this concept makes you feel uneasy and nervous then the movie is secretly for you. If not, still give it a shot. Just don’t expect the laughs and fuzzies to last. This ain’t that sort of flick and it’s all the better for it.