Finite and unrecoverable, that’s what our time on this earth is. Mortality comes with the default set of traits for mankind, and such unalterable realization about our expiration date should, in theory, encourage people to live fully before facing the ultimate goodbye. In the Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) uncompromising and highly singular debut feature, “Swiss Army Man,” the restrains that societal codes place on human happiness and our desire to seek fulfillment is explored through the improbable friendship between an apparent castaway and another young man’s corpse. The film’s idiosyncratic premise delivers on its promise to be an unorthodox narrative and fittingly showcases the natural evolution of the director’s talents seen previously in their commercial and music video work.
Disheveled and visibly distressed, Paul Dano plays Hank, a man stranded on an island and on the brink of suicide whose life is spared where a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore. Initially Hank is ecstatic thinking perhaps this encounter could ensue into being rescued, but as the decomposing and farting body begins to convulse, he decides riding the deceased body is his best bet. Once on the mainland and given purpose by his new companion (a la “Son of Saul” but in a much lighter context), Hank embarks on a mission to return to civilization — where there might not be much room for him or the corpse.
Eventually, in a magical realist and evidently absurdist turn, the dead man reveals his name is Manny, and though he is not very articulate (as most characters who come back from the death, aka zombies, are), his presence pushes Hank to self-analyze the choices that brought him to this surreal point in his life. But Manny also has a story of his own, one that Hank pieces together by questioning his stiff pal about the photos of a pretty girl in his cell phone.
Rapidly earning each other’s trust, both characters confide their painful regrets and unlikely aspirations, at least from their limited perspective, hoping to find strength in their mutual solitude and alienation. Surely, such introspective observations are adorned by fart noises aplenty and intricate discussions about masturbation. As the plot unfolds and nature challenges them, Manny’s physique truly becoming a multipurpose tool that includes a penis that serves as compass, gallons of fluid that keep Hanks from dehydrating, and a gas-propelled escape vehicle.
As scatological as it might sound, and it will certainly be found off-putting by segments of the audience, “Swiss Army Man” is as heartfelt as it’s inhibited in its way to approach such a unique central relationship. Vibrant montages that are simultaneously hilarious and life affirming becomes incredibly transporting moments that induce reflection even in this wild universe. Beneath the eccentric silliness that might come across at first, the Daniels’ deal with existence as a fleeting concept that should not be bound by moral regulations if these get in the way of experiencing happiness. Holding in a fart fearful of what the rest of the world might think is, to the human spirit, as hurtful as never expressing ones feelings to those we care for or never taking a chance against the odds.
Radcliffe’s character comes from beyond the grave not simply to be a practical asset, but to teach Hank once we die all the inconsequential worries and insignificant concerns that held us back while alive are meaningless. In Manny’s naïve view of the world, if it doesn’t bring you joy why do it and if it does make you happy why not do it? Insecurity and self-doubt run rampant between these two, but the filmmakers never let the film dive into a sappy mood. The outrageous gags have an experimental dance with the more existentialist thematic that makes for a tonal mosaic that is hard to qualify.
Each in his respective demanding role, Dano and Radcliffe dive wholeheartedly into this two-hander that only offers them the great outdoors, their emotional predicaments, and a separate dreamy realm constructed by Hank to replicate what Manny’s life could be once they get back home. These sequences are by far the most memorable and ambiguous instances. Hank, in order to motivate Manny to help him find the right path to the nearest town, creates a hand-made playground where they can pretend to be the men they were not in the real world. Hank dresses as a raggedy version Sarah, a girl Manny saw on the bus and fell head over hills for, and together they imagine what could be possible if, for once, their negative perceptions about themselves wouldn’t stop them from trying to pursue the unknown.
Dano dribbles between being a confident mentor to his rotting ally and feeling as unworthy as he does. It’s a subtle performance for the most when compared to Radcliffe’s otherworldly work, but it offers an emotional anchor that helps the more flamboyant elements roll out in a somewhat smooth fashion. Radcliffe’s endearing take on an inexplicably resurrected man comes with a moving innocence of a child who is looking at the world for the first time. This is a role that could lose its loving qualities in someone else’s hands, or body, given how the film operates, but Radcliffe pulls it off. He is by far the warmest flatulent, talking cadaver to have ever appeared on screen.
Given that The Daniels’ primary inclination is to push narrative boundaries blending gross-out comedy, fantastic philosophy, and inventive takes on conventional relationships here, there are unanswered questions that,though they don’t subtract from the uniqueness of the piece, might leave some viewers perplexed and wondering what the rules of this story are. The final act takes a shift that organically matches what the filmmakers have been setting up through the journey, and reinforces the ambiguity and their fondness of choosing visceral qualities over orthodox storytelling. For them, it seems in “Swiss Army Man,” regret is the product of guilt and poisonous thoughts, which, like fart,must be released for one to ride into the sunset. The most original film of the year is also one of the most profound.
“Swiss Army Man” opens theatrically in Los Angeles and New York on June 24th from A24.
About Carlos Aguilar for SydneysBuzz
Originally from Mexico City, Carlos Aguilar developed an all-consuming passion for storytelling at a young age influenced by American classics and his mother’s love for European cinema. Evidently, film became the obvious answer to his need to translate words into visual artistry. His drive to find his path in this complex world has taken him to pursue endeavors in diverse circles within industry, including producing his own short films, serving as an intern for the distribution company Strand Releasing and the renowned Sundance Institute, and writing for several online publications. In his capacity as a film journalist he has written for important outlets such as Indiewire, SydneysBuzz, Movie Maker Magazine, Creative Screenwriting, and Variety Latino. In 2014, Carlos Aguilar was chosen as one of 6 young film critics to partake in the first Roger Ebert Fellowship organized by the Sundance Institute and Indiewire. His multi-faceted relationship with cinema provides him with a well-rounded understanding of the medium as an art form and a business. Whether interviewing internationally acclaimed filmmakers, covering screenplays, or reviewing the latest independent gem, his passion for film is always indelible.
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