A Review of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Swiss Army Man: A Mixed Bag of Farts, Humor, and Heart

swiss army
Film: Swiss Army Man
Directors: Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Primary Cast: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
US Release Date: 1 July 2016

Hank (Dano) is a young man stranded on a desert island. Starving, and lonely, he decides to commit suicide. But then, just as he is about to hang himself, a corpse (Radcliffe) washes up on the beach.

The corpse—which Hank eventually names “Manny”—is rather gassy. So gassy in fact, that Hank is able to ride him like a jet-ski back to the mainland. Once there, Hank is confronted with the daunting task of finding his way through the wilderness and back to civilization. Though he considers leaving Manny behind, he feels indebted to him and ends up bringing him along instead.

Though carrying Manny does slow Hank down, it soon becomes clear that he welcomes his presence. Even though Manny (being a corpse and all) is silent at first, he does find his voice eventually. When he does, he and Hank develop a special bond. After learning that Manny does not remember life, Hank begins teaching him about various things, and their conversations cover a number of topics, including Jurassic Park, pooping, trash, masturbation, and riding the bus. All the while, Hank finds a multitude of uses for Hank’s body—uses which entertain, which provide an outlet for Hank’s emotions and creativity, and which help to keep Hank alive.

Swiss Army Man is the first feature film from music video directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (known collectively as “Daniels”). Though its premise is absurd, Swiss Army Man is much more than cheap fart jokes or some Daniel-Radcliffe-plays-a-corpse gimmick. It’s sure to offend its fair share of sticks-in-the-mud with its more vulgar, puerile, and bodily moments, but Swiss Army Man will also capture the hearts and imaginations of countless more. Though Daniels do leave room for improvement, their efforts also yield a well-paced and fascinating cinematic adventure. Swiss Army Man deserves criticism, but not for its particular brand of humor or for its desire to blend the raunchy and the strange with the grim and the sentimental. Like Manny’s body and like Hank’s imagination, this daringly different buddy comedy accomplishes a great deal, and it’s noticeably far from ordinary.

Swiss Army Man isn’t shy about who or what it is. Unlike Hank, the film itself is not embarrassed by that which makes it “weird” and different. Instead, it allows its particular personality to saturate every scene. The film begins with a whacky—and decidedly memorable—opening sequence unlike anything viewers will have already seen. Instead of slowly acclimating viewers its stranger characteristics, Swiss Army Man chooses to bypass any small talk or foreplay and gets straight to exuberant warts and all instead.

As one might expect, the quirks and confidence of Daniels’ are present throughout their film’s narrative, especially where Manny is concerned. That said, they also inform its music and visuals, both of which are integral to the film’s layered tone and its specific feel. Swiss Army Man’s score—which was created by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of Manchester Orchestra—is quite beautiful, and it adds emotional depth to the film while highlighting its more fantastical elements. At the same time, the film’s detailed and textured images also work to lend both depth and distinctive personality to this surreal adventure movie.

Swiss Army Man borders on fantasy, and Daniels are confident enough in their vision to leave their film in a liminal space that doesn’t’ always coincide with any sharply defined reality. Within mere moments, what’s real and what isn’t becomes unclear, and it remains so all the way through. And though Swiss Army Man does not make the mistake of completely explaining away its more hallucinatory elements, it does gradually reveal that Hank’s mind and emotions can’t be separated from the world of the film around him. In fact, that viewers receive just about everything from Hank’s warped and idiosyncratic perspective is crucial; by telling their story in such a manner, Daniels invite audiences to grapple with the (un)reality and the potential meaning of its every moment and detail, which both enriches and complicates interaction with the film.

On the surface, Swiss Army Man is a survival story wrapped up in a flatulence-fueled comedy. But it’s also a complex film whose narrative is hounded by despair. It’s about a deeply felt life-saving friendship, and it’s about a man’s struggle to remember the “life [he] forgot.” It’s a film that required intense imagination and a special combination of immature and black humor to create. It also required a good deal of heart, and even though that heart isn’t always in the right place, Swiss Army Man’s emotional force is sure to surprise many who see it. Daniels’ script provides genuinely funny, genuinely puzzling, and genuinely moving moments alike, and a consistent stream of clever turns enables their film not only to make the gross seem palatable, but to transform it into something memorable, affecting, and multifaceted.

Script and imagination aside, a great deal of Swiss Army Man’s power resides in its two lead performances, both of which demonstrate a great deal of creative commitment on behalf of the actors. While hopeless Hank is hardly Dano’s most compelling character, he does a fantastic job with the script he is given, and he brings a good deal of weight to a film whose very premise quietly threatens to unmoor it at every turn. As the talking-multipurpose-tool-corpse Manny, Radcliffe has the more interesting of the film’s roles, and he certainly makes the most of it. Combining emotional intelligence, comedic timing, bravery, and restraint, Radcliffe’s work in Swiss Army Man may just be his best yet. Who knew that playing a farting corpse could go so well?

Swiss Army Man is ridiculous and whimsical and emotional. It’s dark and funny and heartfelt too. It’s also flawed. And though part of Daniels’ message is that flaws are the norm and that even seemingly useless things, thoughts, and feelings have their value, that does not excuse certain imperfections in their film. Swiss Army Man’s final section is weak compared to much of the journey that precedes it, and the final moments feel just a little too slapdash in the end. Daniels also would have done well to cut the numerous flashbacks meant to flesh out Hank’s background; such scenes actually weaken Hank’s characterization, and they detract from the film by removing viewers from the kooky and engrossing reality of its present.

That said—and for all its bright spots—there remains one aspect of the film that I can’t stop thinking about: Hank’s cellphone wallpaper. The image, which features a woman named Sarah (Winstead)—a woman he does not know, a woman he photographed without permission—is presented as Hank’s reason for running away as well as for finding his way back home again. And the more I think about this detail, the more disturbed and disappointed I feel. Instead of leaving Swiss Army Man offended by fart jokes and body humor, I left trying to figure out the extent of its protagonist’s misogyny. Hank’s unsettling obsession with Sarah—whom he falls in love with based on appearance and selfish fantasies only—is not presented as particularly virtuous or healthy, but it isn’t wholly condemned either. Perhaps one of the lessons that Hank is supposed to learn (with Manny’s help) is that there is much more to life than some woman who doesn’t love him, but the film also ends without that woman ever regaining something like humanity. The image on Hank’s phone completely flattens Sarah, and Daniels are content to leave her that way. When Sarah does finally appear in person, the film does hint that Hank’s behavior toward her is disturbing, but it’s too little too late, and it’s certainly not enough to undo the fact that Daniels repeatedly ask their viewers to side with Hank regardless of his creepy obsession with her.

There is nothing cute about stalking someone or about reducing women to their appearance, and Swiss Army Man’s directors should have given Hank some other motivation for falling apart and running way. Apparently, Hank never really grew up or learned to see women as actual people who exist independently of his own desires, fantasies, and insecurities; and since Swiss Army Man is shaped by his perspective, the film is complicit in such misogynistic tendencies. With this in mind, Manny’s penis-compass (which is a thing) ceases to seem funny and becomes rather frightening. Though there is much in it worth praising, there is still something very male and very toxic bubbling under the surface of this film—whenever it faded from view, I was swept up by the directors’ vision and had a great time. But when it reared its ugly head, I fought the urge to squirm.

Swiss Army Man has a little bit of everything; it boasts strong performances, numerous laughs, visual and aural inventiveness, and a good bit of daring. The film also has a unique, complex tone and is unapologetic about itself in a manner that helps it stand out from other movies. Not all of Daniels’ attempts at depth and sentiment work, but most of Swiss Army Man remains strangely endearing all the same. This odd and often charming work is far from perfect, but its original ideas are entertaining, fascinating, and refreshing. If Hank weren’t a clueless misogynist, the film would be much better; as it stands, it’s still good enough to ensure that plenty will be lining up to see what Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert do next.

Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading! As I mentioned at the end of my last post, I will probably be pretty scarce for most of the next several weeks. If you want to keep up with this blog during any hiatus, your best option is to connect with me on twitter, but leaving a question or comment on this page works too.

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