What started as a fart joke between friends evolved into an existential drama about mortality, honest love, and friendship starring Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. And then it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in front of 1,100 people. To borrow a phrase from Drake and Future’s mixtape, what a time to be alive. Easily one of the most divisive films at Sundance (and everywhere else, I’d wager), Swiss Army Man is a bizarre fever dream of a movie that will leave you questioning what it was exactly you just saw. While its surface may seem sophomoric and puerile, there is heady stuff gurgling beneath its surface, and it makes for an affecting, albeit uneven viewing experience. Apparently, a bunch of people walked out of the theater during the screening. To them I say “good riddance,” because Swiss Army Man was one of the most original and earnest films I’ve seen.
Look, I get it. This film is not for everyone. In fact, the most common refrains I heard once the credits rolled were variations on “What did I just watch?”, “What the fuck?”, and “What was that about?” These are all appropriate questions given that it feels like someone compiled a mash-up between Cast Away, The Revenant, and Weekend at Bernie’s with more dick and fart jokes per capita than anything I’ve seen in a long time. So what is this film about?
The film opens on Hank (Paul Dano), a young man marooned on a desert island, humming a wistful tune as he ties a noose around his neck. Just as he is about to take his final step, he spies a body that has washed up on the beach (Daniel Radcliffe). After the grim realization that the body is, in fact, dead, Hank takes the man’s belt and prepares to make a new-and-improved noose for himself. Then he hears something–flatulence to be precise. What follows is Hank realizing that these cadaveric spasms and the string of farts escaping the body’s behind can be used to fashion a makeshift jet ski — and that’s exactly what he does. Paul Dano rides Daniel Radcliffe’s farting corpse like a jet ski across the ocean. Those are real words that I typed and it was a glorious, outlandish, and baffling sight to behold.
While using a corpse as a fart-powered jet ski may seem to be in poor taste, it is the first of many instances we see of the film’s title playing out on the screen. This corpse is quite literally a swiss army knife, capable of providing water like a pump, creating sparks by snapping fingers, launching projectiles from his mouth with ballistic force, and using his penis as a sort of weird mystical compass. In the process of discovering these mysterious abilities, Hank somehow brings the corpse back to life. Well, life is a generous term, so let’s call it “not quite death.” Dubbing himself Manny, the recently resurrected fellow is bursting with questions about life and human nature, which Hank proceeds to answer slowly and sometimes frustratingly. The relationship between the two feels a bit reminiscent of Of Mice and Men or Encino Man as Hank tries his damnedest to educate his newfound friend. More than anything, it feels like the Frankenstein movie I wanted to see Radcliffe in all along.
In a post-screening Q&A, co-director Daniel Scheinert said that, in its most elemental of terms, Swiss Army Man is “a story about a suicidal man who must convince a dead body that life is worth living.” His directing partner, Daniel Kwan, jokingly referred to the film as a “fart drama,” before briefly explaining that it was also about “love without shame.” Once you get past the abject silliness, those statements ring surprisingly true. Hank is a hopeless man who had given up on himself and his prospects of survival. His friendship with Manny forces him to reevaluate his own life and what’s truly important to him, and part of that is being proud of who you are no matter what.
Usually when seeing a movie, much of the behind-the-scenes work goes unnoticed, but in Swiss Army Man, the sound design was pitch perfect — even when that pitch was the guttural yawp of gas escaping a dead body. The soundtrack was at times twee and dreamy, but it all worked because most of it sprang organically from Dano and Radcliffe’s own voices as they sang and hummed bits and pieces of different tunes. Likewise, the film is beautifully shot, with lush forest landscapes and seaside vistas providing a lavish backdrop for the survival story. At times, you cannot help but feel as though you’re watching a feature-length music video, which is fitting given the Daniels’ pedigree; they have directed countless music videos, earning a VMA for their work on DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What.” For some that may be a turn-off, but their visual style and their penchant for truly bonkers practical effects made the film a refreshing treat.
For many people, Swiss Army Man will be a mystifying experience. Hell, this review is nearly over and I’m still sorting out my feelings about it. You’re never quite sure what you’re seeing is real, and the filmmakers leave you guessing until the film’s final moments (which you must see for yourself). At times, it’s sweet, pensive, and touches on some core truth of the human experience. (“If you don’t know Jurassic Park, you don’t know shit.”) At other times, it’s dumb as hell, disgusting, and befuddling. Some of the film’s conceits, especially those pertaining to Manny’s bodily functions, are rather clever and quite funny, while others are overdone and more than a little overwrought. Yet more than anything, Swiss Army Man is a deeply compelling viewing experience that is both well-shot and well-acted. If you can stop rolling your eyes long enough and embrace the absurdity of flamethrower butts and a penis compass, then you’re all but guaranteed to have a good time. And isn’t that what we’re all looking for at the end of the day?
Rating: 3.5 out 5 burritos
Images: Blackbird Films/Cold Iron Pictures via Indiewire