Director: Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert
Cast: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
We must always allow a movie its concept, that core flight of fancy that lays the groundwork for its plot. Sure, some concepts are more of a slight against decency, but since when did decency ever make much sense? You’d think a farting corpse would be much less offensive and controversial than one that rises from the grave to devour the flesh of the living, but The Walking Dead’s ratings proudly announce that they’re not. So, there you go. Decency be damned. Those that condemn Swiss Army Man as “that Farting Corpse Movie” are entirely missing the point. It’s a wonderful, beautiful hilarious, elegant, intelligent… Farting Corpse Movie.
I mean, a spade’s still a spade.
So, the flatulent cadaver in question belongs to Manny (Daniel Radcliffe). One day he washes up on the shore of a desert island just when the stranded Hank (Paul Dano) is about to give up and kill himself. Many farts later, Hank discovers that Manny’s gas can propel him through water, so he rides him like a jet ski to the mainland. Thus begins a journey to find home, where Hank discovers that Manny has many wonderful, helpful properties that allow him to act as an axe, a thermos, a compass, a gun, and much more.
He’s mildly phased when Manny begins to talk, but is ecstatic to have a companion. He begins to teach Manny about what it means to be a human, but slowly realizes that maybe he doesn’t actually know. His life before this was empty, friendless, sad, and kinda creepy. He stalked a girl he sees on the bus (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and sent e-cards to his dad, and that’s about it. So it takes the friendship of a dead person to help him feel truly alive.
You know, just like in ALL movies with fart jokes.
It’s true that Swiss Army Man is frequently sophomoric and never stops being deeply weird, but it’s a movie that explicitly deals with the concept of weirdness in a way that most indie shock flicks wouldn’t even dream of. It blows up the idea, deeply examines the societal structures that dictate normality, finds them wanting, then tears off in a refreshingly bold direction. At its core, Swiss Army Man is a member of a hallowed, ancient genre (the male buddy comedy), but it remixes that conceit into something dazzling and original.
Although the basic plot structure adheres to that surprisingly mundane formula, there is no point at which Swiss Army Man stops pushing the envelope. It is a scatological, explicit, vaguely homoerotic adventure that drags you up and down your scale of emotions and plunks you down at the end, bewildered and exhausted yet strangely satisfied. This is a definition-defying movie, entirely open to interpretation yet nevertheless presenting a solid, identifiable story. It’s an enormously cumbersome task to describe it, but I feel an urgent need to push on because it struck a chord deep within me.
Like most viewers with the fortitude to soldier past the opening ten minutes (a sequence almost entirely centered upon farting – the easily-shocked don’t possess the strength required to break through that hardened crust to find the comedy crème-brûlée hiding beneath), I felt a deep, primordial, almost involuntary connection to Swiss Army Man that I can’t quite put my finger on. Not that I particularly want to. I’m perfectly content that my feelings are as tangled, perplexing, and ineffable as the movie itself.
But the fact remains that Swiss Army Man is an intensely emotional, intelligent journey that it has absolutely no right to be. But the weirdness of its concept is exactly what opens it up to a whole new level of philosophical discourse.
Yeah, I used the phrase “philosophical discourse” in this review. I’m as shocked as you that it came up.
Alright, I think that I’ve got all my babbling out. Let’s talk for a bit about solid facts that we can actually quantify. Like this one: The score for Swiss Army Man has instantly risen into my Top Ten movie scores of all time.*
It’s an incredibly important facet of the film’s atmosphere, an eclectic, mostly a cappella work that is integrated with the onscreen action so thoroughly that the characters literally interact with it. Their actions, dialogue, and the snippets of cultural detritus that make up their worldview are all incorporated into this stunning, bright score that’s simultaneously a soaring celebration of the film’s sense of adventure and a reflection of the ramshackle facsimile of the world that Hank has created around himself, composed of bits and pieces of litter he has found in nature. It’s the first score I’ve heard in a long time that feels like a vital and integral part of the narrative alongside driving the emotion of the scenes. Also, it accomplishes the impossible by transmogrifying f**king “Cotton Eyed Joe” into a hauntingly beautiful melody. There’s some straight-up black magic going on here.
I will not go into detail about myself tearing up over “Cotton Eyed Joe,” but I will close this rapturous segment with the idea that this music (especially a song entitled “Montage”) calls a lot of attention to the artifice of Swiss Army Man, which performs a manifestly important service. By reminding us that this is all a work of fiction, it allows us to escape that constant dithering between what is real, what is fake, and whether Manny is imaginary or not. It’s all imaginary. This is just a movie, after all. That frank admission cuts through the BS and brings you up close and personal with the actual content.
Speaking of black magic, Swiss Army Man would not work whatsoever if it weren’t for the herculean efforts of Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano, whose fearless performances propel the comedy into the stratosphere. On the most fundamental level, the fact that they commit enough to allow us to believe in what’s happening to them is astounding. Then they craft an emotional throughline around that core, another Sisyphean task. Then they have the gall to make it funny?
*For the record, that Top Ten also includes a fair bit of John Williams, maybe some Carpenter, and definitely Jim Dooley’s score for Pushing Daisies, which I’m well aware is not a movie, but I could not care less.
God damn it guys, leave some talent for the rest of us.
Radcliffe is downright perfect, maintaining his corpselike stiffness while creating an emotionally resonant character and precisely modulating his voice to capture the innocent wonder and fish-out-of-water hilarity of a corpse discovering the world for the first (or is it second?) time. It’s a physically, vocally, tonally unsurpassable work, and he does it all in an accent that isn’t even his own. While his body shakes with farts. And a prosthetic erection wiggles around in his jeans. Honestly, it’s a miracle any performer played this role, let alone Harry Potter.
Dano is likewise superb, but his character falls into a much more recognizable vein (for the purposes of the film’s commentary on the sad, vaguely repulsive, self-serious lives of the young adults that inevitably populate these types of movies), so his performance is intentionally a bit less noticeable.
These two actors power-charge the giddy tone of this ridiculous, beautiful movie, so much so that they even survive its terrible ending. There is perhaps no way this movie could have ended in a proper, satisfying way, but the overlong finale is a little too intent on flooding Hank’s world with actual reality, then scuttling it all once more. It’s an ending that provides too little and too much explanation, defying an important set of character dynamics to return to the now-faded shock value of its opening. But other than that, Swiss Army Man is an incredible piece of work that defies Hollywood’s strict storytelling structure, reinventing the wheel of a hoary, predictable comedy genre in an innovative and intensely compelling way.
TL;DR: Swiss Army Man is a blissfully weird, surprisingly beautiful movie.
Rating: 8/10Word Count: 1361