Sometimes a movie comes along that defies any kind of deep intellectual interpretation. It simply unspools its crazy internal logic before your eyes and dares you not to get caught up in the madness you’re witnessing. Swiss Army Man is that movie. It takes the concept of magical realism and twists everything you think you know about narrative expectation into a pretzel. For ninety minutes, I could not believe what I was seeing. I was so caught up in what would happen next, the full joy of the experience didn’t hit me until it was all over. Part of that was never being able to predict where the script was going.
The guys who wrote and directed that script, Dan Kwan and Daniel Sheinert (credited jointly as “Daniels”), establish within the first ten minutes that Swiss Army Man would be crazily, stupefyingly original. When the hero rides a farting corpse like a jet ski to escape a deserted island, I knew the writers were issuing a cinematic challenge. I’ll admit, I was hesitant at first. I can enjoy potty humor as well as anyone, at least in limited doses. But when Hank (Paul Dano) investigates the dead body that washes up on the desolate beach where he's stranded, all that happens at first is the farting. I wondered if that would be the extent of the writer-directors’ imagination. Then came the aforementioned riding of the corpse like a jet ski, with Hank pulling on the dead man’s necktie like a throttle for increased speed. Challenge accepted.
I initially thought the idea behind Swiss Army Man was Weekend at Bernie’s meets Cast Away. Then I was told people were describing it as Weekend at Bernie’s by way of Terrence Malick. The latter is closer to the truth. When the corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) comes back to a tenebrous life, his full power to supply Hank with everything he needs to survive takes on a mystical quality. Hank learns that the dead man used to be called Manny, and the bond they forge over the course of the picture is closer than the ones I have with some of my dearest friends. It’s a boy and his corpse, set against some of the most beautifully shot nature since last year’s Wild.
The forest Hank and Manny find themselves in after escaping a deserted island and an unforgiving sea becomes a kind of third character in Swiss Army Man. It feels like the Pacific Northwest, and its lushness is gorgeously photographed by cinematographer Larkin Seiple. The care with which the surroundings are captured on film is a primary reason for the comparison to Malick’s films. True, there are no languorous shots of sun-dappled golden wheat fields but the feeling is the same. Who knows, if Hank and Manny had washed up in the Midwest (an idea that’s not as crazy as it sounds once you’ve seen the movie) maybe we would have gotten those wheat-y insert shots.
Swiss Army Man shares more connective tissue with a Malick film like The Tree of Life in scenes that illustrate the profundity of human bonding. The subversive hilarity of the Daniels is to make that deep connection between a slightly unhinged man and a melancholy cadaver. Manny has forgotten everything about humanity since he died, and Hank takes it upon himself to re-learn the dead man the magic of human interaction.
The male bonding culminates in a lyrical sequence: Hank staging a recreation for Manny of the seemingly mundane act of riding a city bus. In the middle of the forest, Hank builds the bus out of leaves and logs. Using his imagination, Manny learns how special such an everyday event can be when Hank describes a girl Manny might have seen every day but could never bring himself to greet. This girl, whose picture is on a cell phone that Hank says washed up with Manny’s body, becomes the focus of the friends’ attempts to get back to civilization.
There’s a gleeful anarchy in the way that the Daniels confounded my expectations of what would happen during the climax. It shouldn’t have been surprising, though, considering the delight the filmmakers take in plot developments like Manny being used as a bow-and-arrow when Hank is forced to hunt animals for food. The directors also use their ties in the world of music videos – up to now, that’s primarily what they’ve directed – to fill Swiss Army Man with a haunting soundtrack. Composed by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of the indie rock band Manchester Orchestra, nonsense songs and melodies sung by Hank and Manny are deftly used to create an idiosyncratic score that gets stuck in your head.
Those duets Hank and Manny sing serve as another way for the two guys to get to know each other, and for the audience to bond with them, too. I wasn’t sure Paul Dano could carry an entire movie by himself, and I’m still puzzling over whether or not he did. Manny doesn’t talk much, and when he does it’s through the side of his mouth and with, quite literally, a dead expression on his face, so a lot of the heavy lifting (pun totally intended) is up to Dano. I like him, but I’m not sure Dano has the leading man charisma to pull off what’s required of him in Swiss Army Man. By contrast, Daniel Radcliffe as the deceased Manny gives an exemplary performance showcasing his dedication and commitment as a performer. He plays a magical half-dead being who can barely move, but he does it so endearingly that I couldn’t help becoming emotionally attached to poor Manny. It’s a performance that’s worthy of being remembered come awards season.
That last sentence is perhaps the best way to sum up the total surprise that Swiss Army Man ultimately was. This is a movie about a farting corpse who helps a man discover himself. Just when you’ve convinced yourself that the movie has done the impossible by using that premise to explore deep emotional territory, the absurdist comedy comes roaring back in a finale that defies explanation. Swiss Army Man is without a doubt the most original, unforgettable film of the year so far.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Swiss Army Man is the most head-scratchingly charming experience. The only reason I didn't rate it higher is my own prejudices about comedies, and their potential for becoming classics. That, and if there is one critique I can offer about the movie, it's that Swiss Army Man has no definable message, aside from complete chaos. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it did keep it from the rarefied air of 4.5 or 5 stars for me.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Paul Dano in drag is delightful. That is all.