It would be easy to put Swiss Army Man in a box and tell you it's Cast Away meets Weekend at Bernie's, but that would be doing a disservice to the biggest hearted, most imaginative film of 2016 thus far. Written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert–who together form the collaborative duo Daniels–Swiss Army Man is simultaneously a buddy road trip, a romantic comedy, a survival epic, a musical, and a farce. And if that sounds absurd, it's because it is. Daniels, which traces its roots to the familiar movie director spawning ground of music videos (e.g. David Fincher, Spike Jonez, Marc Webb), have a unique vision and have never shied away from bringing their bizarre take on the world to a new canvas. Kwan and Scheinert's body of work, albeit limited to date, includes visually exciting ad spots like this one (https://vimeo.com/19725888) for Levi's, and popular music videos like this one for Battles (https://vimeo.com/28943818) or this one for Lil John's "Turn Down for What" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMUDVMiITOU&feature=youtu.be).
While their art has always suggested a fascination with the body in motion, Daniels' new film is a kinetic masterpiece, a modern "I Sing the Body Electric". The film is about a depressed young man named Hank (Paul Dano) who finds himself shipwrecked and painfully alone on a deserted island. Just as Hank is about to hang himself, he sees a man lying on the beach that wasn't there before. The dead body, who we later will call Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), appears sedentary at first, but even before the opening credits roll Manny boasts one of his many gross powers as Hank rides the corpse like a boogie board–propelled by Manny's farts–across the sea and hopefully back to civilization. This opening crescendo of a scene is triumphant, hilarious, and the perfect invitation to join the strange journey that is to come.
As Hank and his new companion venture through the woods we learn that Manny can do much more than just pass combustive gas. Not only can he talk (although he remembers nothing of his former life or about life at all), he also vomits drinkable water, spews objects out of his mouth at ballistic velocities, and his erection doubles as a perfectly good compass. The ugliness of this body imagery is intentional on Daniels' part. As Hank teaches Manny about life and society and love, the dead man has a hard time understanding the concept of self-restraint, or propriety. If one had to fart, why wouldn't one fart whenever and wherever and as loud as one wants? If Hank was in love with a girl he sees on the bus every day, why wouldn't he sit next to her and tell her how he feels? Manny's bewilderment at Hank's rejection of things that feel good (e.g. flatulence, truthfulness, masturbation, love) underscores the film's call to embrace the weirdness of our bodies and our psyches. A society that aired its dirty laundry out in the open would no doubt be a healthier, less repressed one, but as Hank already knows and his new best friend Manny will come to realize, nobody wants to see the ugly parts of other people.
Yet to truly embrace the weirdness of the film is to embrace it in yourself, and more importantly, in others. Fittingly, identity confusion comes up more than a couple times in Swiss Army Man. For a brief period at the end of the film Hank and Manny are misidentified for one another, and in a series of flashbacks Manny's consciousness enters Hank's. In the funniest, most emotional scene of the film, the pair reenacts Hank's daily commute using Manny as a stand-in so Hank can play the girl on the bus. More crassly, and perhaps beautifully, Hank comes to terms with death by hypothesizing that one day Hank's and Manny's respective fecal matter will merge into one, and so they will always be together even beyond death since everybody shits themselves before they die.
As I said before, Swiss Army Man is a farce with a heart. A fart, I suppose.
This theme of a shared humanity has been done before but never this creatively and never with this much humor. The laughs never let up in Swiss Army Man, and it's not so much that the film pivots between comedy and pathos, but that they are blended together and felt at the same time, a much harder chord to strike.
Complementing two stellar lead performances from Dano and Radcliffe (who continues to challenge himself and evolve as an actor) is the directors' prowess with visual effects. It's shocking what Kwan and Scheinert rendered on screen with what appeared to be a small budget, no doubt a testament to their experience producing music videos. In fact, in some instances the film itself becomes a music video of sorts as Dano and Radcliffe periodically sing or hum melodies that after a few bars are accompanied by the full ensemble of Andy Hull and Robert McDowell's ethereal original music, which will play in your head as you leave the theatre.
Swiss Army Man is playing now in New York and LA and will get a wide release starting July 1.
by Mike Markese of Just-in-Time Reviews