Swiss Army Man – Film Review by Gareth Stack
Directors: Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Writers: Dan Kwahttps, Daniel Scheinert
Stars: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Hank (Paul Dano), face crusted with sunburn, bearded and lost like Joaquin Phoenix in I’m Still Here, prepares for suicide. Noosed with rope, perched in the mouth of a laughing cave, he’s all set to end a castaway existence. He spots a body at the water’s edge. Finally companionship! Finding instead a recently deceased corpse (‘Manny’ played by Daniel Radcliffe) Hank begins a self-piteous diatribe. The first of countless fart gags interrupts him, quaking a horrible unlife into the blue skinned, suited carcass. In a flash of inspiration Hank resolves to ride this flatulent flotsam to freedom like a necrotic jet ski. Thus opens one of the strangest and most playful American films in recent memory, the debut feature from music video director duo ‘the Daniels’. The pair, whose signature style combines slow motion set pieces with slapstick humour, have created something that feels genuinely original: A feature length fart joke with pathos.
Radcliffe’s titular ‘Swiss Army Man’ is a poignant figure, a naif whose past life is forgotten, struggling to understand the world under the tutelage of the painfully alienated Hank. Radcliffe squeezes out his dialogue and puzzled expressions through convincing rigor mortis, but the film’s magic realist approach is unconcerned with explaining its absurd premise. This is an exploration of how imagination rooted in loneliness finds its expression in companionship. Much mirth is rung from the many uses to which Radcliffe’s body is put – as a makeshift hammer, a dart gun, rappel, marionette, hatchet, shower, flame thrower, and in one particularly memorable sequence a phallic compass. But all this profane comedy serves to bed a surprisingly sweet romance. We learn Hank’s alienation began long before his isolation, as he swedes his memories for Manny. It’s Pinocchio, part Calvin and Hobbes as Hank becomes an unreliable father to Manny’s childlike zombie. Throughout, the film preserves a subtle balance between the pathological sublime and the uncomfortably intimate. This is Spike Jonze by way of Samuel Beckett. It’s a line that other films – from Terry Gilliam’s Tidelands to the recent Ryan Reynolds vehicle The Voices – have conspicuously failed to walk.
The film isn’t perfect. Charmingly twee musical moments (the actors strained voices fusing with an indie soundtrack from Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull and Robert McDowell) become repetitive. Poor editorial choices occasionally step on the timing – as Harold Remis’s said, “Comedy lives in the two shot”. A vignette structure keeps the action moving, but undermines deeper characterisation. All the same it’s joyful, funny and authentically subversive. One sequence combining autogynephilic drag, situational homoeroticism and intimations of necrophilia – is a masterpiece of emotional manipulation. This is a series of extreme moments justified by empathy and imagination; riding on the back of charmingly old fashioned practical effects – from marionettes to shadow puppets. The ramshackle meta-filmmaking pioneered by Adult Swim, Channel 101 and Tim & Eric, has finally been employed to make something worthwhile. An hour and a half long, fart powered love story.