Thursday, October 27, 2016

"Swiss Army Man": review


"Swiss Army Man" is a 2016 film directed by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan. It stars Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe as a suicidal guy and a slowly reanimating, flatulent dead body, respectively. The movie is basically a comedy, but it's also a wordy, absurdist sort of morality play about human connection and the eros of the human spirit—a point comically driven home by the repeated appearance of Radcliffe's enthusiastic erection. I won't lie to you: even as I write this review, I'm still trying to wrap my head around the lunacy that I just saw.

Dano plays Hank, a young man with no life and no prospects who somehow ends up shipwrecked on a small island. Having grown suicidal, Hank is about to hang himself when he looks across the beach and sees a body (Radcliffe) on the sand. Hank examines the body, which begins farting lustily. The farts are impossibly long, and they seem to gain in power as time goes by, so Hank gets it in his head to point the corpse seaward and ride it, like a jet ski, away from the island. What follows is one of the weirdest, most hilarious scenes I've ever witnessed in a movie: a bedraggled, bearded Paul Dano astride a fart-propelled Daniel Radcliffe, speeding crazily off to better fortune. Of course, this joyride ends with a crash, but the corpse has taken Hank close enough to the mainland for them both to be washed onto this new shore, that much closer to civilization.

Hank has begun talking to the corpse, so he can't bring himself to abandon it. He lugs the corpse into a cave and, dying of thirst, makes the accidental discovery that the corpse can vomit fresh water. Holding a cup under the corpse's chin, Hank hesitates at first, but eventually drinks the vomited water, and once he realizes the liquid is fresh and pure, he ecstatically downs even more. Hank's constant discovery of the corpse's various powers is where the title "Swiss Army Man" comes from. Later on, we see the corpse being used as a gun, as a karate-chopping axe to split tree trunks, and even as a navigation tool (the corpse's aforementioned erection apparently points the way toward help).

While they're still inside the cave, Hank is terrified and thrilled to discover that the corpse has acquired the power of speech. It names itself Manny, and Manny has no recollection of who he was in his previous life. Manny, perhaps because he's essentially undead, is naive about how the world works; as a result, many of his exchanges with Hank revolve around basic questions of life and human motivation. Another big topic is sex and sexuality; Manny seems, at times, almost to act as a sort of Freudian counselor for Hank, who confesses awkward things about his private life, including his masturbation habits. For his part, Hank tries to help Manny feel better about himself by imaginatively reconstructing Manny's previous life—who Manny must have been, whom he loved, and so on. Manny's slowly blossoming romantic ardor is fueled by the sight of a woman on Hank's cell phone (Manny gets it into his head that it's his cell phone). The woman is named Sarah; Hank, a shy loner, once took her picture when she wasn't looking. Hank also quietly follows Sarah on social media; before his shipwreck, he saw Sarah regularly on the bus, but he never tried to initiate a conversation with her.

Eventually, Manny's erection leads the two directly to Sarah's house, where we discover that Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is married and has a daughter. Manny, upon seeing the revulsion on Sarah's and her daughter's faces, loses all of his reanimation and sadly reverts to being a corpse. The police arrive, along with news crews, to interview Hank and collect the dead body. Hank's domineering father is also on the scene, but Hank decides to rescue Manny's corpse and run back into the forest. Hank and the corpse slalom downhill, through the woods and back to the beach (which apparently wasn't that far away from Sarah's property), with Sarah, her family, the police, and Hank's dad in pursuit. Hank is gently arrested, but Manny the corpse suddenly regains a measure of liveliness and, taken out to sea by the lapping waves, farts himself away from land, giving Hank a cheesy grin as he goes.

What to make of all this? "Swiss Army Man" felt almost as if the screenwriters had a meeting and said, "Okay, so we want to do a story about human yearning for connection, but we want the audience to gain these insights through the lens of a naive, flatulent corpse." Since Hank objectively survives in the wild without dying of thirst, and since Sarah's daughter actually talks directly with the corpse, and because a news cameraman really films Manny ass-gassing himself away from the shore at the end of the film, I think we can safely pigeonhole the film as one with a magical-realist narrative: Manny's reanimation is clearly not just a figment of Hank's delirious imagination: the corpse does indeed have the superpowers Hank witnesses. This puts the film in the realm of fantasy, which is apropos since Manny's abilities don't always add up logically: for example, he doesn't understand some of the most basic concepts, but at other times he makes reference to objects, ideas, and functions that someone with his level of naiveté shouldn't know.

So the film puts us, the viewers, in the weird position of having to think about the issues and themes while also demanding that we turn our brains off and not think about Hank and Manny's manifold contradictions. Hank is shy; he's lived a quiet, withdrawn life of missed opportunities, and it's not obvious, by the end of the film, that he's actually learned anything from his miraculous experience with Manny the corpse. If anything, the corpse seems to have had the more visible character arc, going from dead to farting to talking to acting like a multi-tool to philosophizing about life to being dead to racing away from civilization to seek his deadish fortune. Manny's character arc, come to think of it, isn't so much an arc-like trajectory as it is the insanely random, ricocheting trajectory of a soda bottle filled with Mentos candies and launched inside a room.

Dano and Radcliffe deserve praise for being weird enough to engage in this project. They play off each other quite well, and Radcliffe's facial expressions are convincingly corpse-like (you do have to wonder why Manny doesn't seem to rot, but I guess that's just another of his superpowers). I run hot and cold when it comes to Dano, who shot to fame for his excellent portrayal of a firebrand preacher in "There Will Be Blood." Ever since I learned the hilarious German expression Backpfeifengesicht from Steve Honeywell, I have looked more closely for people who have that sort of face, and Dano is definitely one of them: I often just want to smack him for seeming so whiny and feckless. But in "Swiss Army Man," Dano is pretty good. Radcliffe makes for an excellent talking corpse; I have to admire the actor's career choices ever since the Harry Potter movies. He's done much to move away from boy-wizard typecasting, and playing a flatulent dead guy is about as far from young Harry as one can get.

One religion-related remark: I couldn't help having a Wonhyo moment watching Hank, in a cave, drink fresh water that has issued from a corpse. In the Wonhyo story from Korean Buddhist tradition, monk Wonhyo and his companion Uisang are on their way to China to learn the deeper mysteries. One night, they shelter in a cave. Parched, Wonhyo feels around blindly in search of a bowl-like object to collect water and drink. He finds a perfect bowl, with water in it, and he gladly drinks, thinking the water to be the freshest and purest he's ever had. In the morning, with light now streaming into the cave, Wonhyo discovers to his horror that the bowl is a human skull, with bits of flesh stuck to its interior. Wonhyo vomits in disgust... then gains enlightenment when he realizes that the subjective nature of his experience of drinking the water resides entirely in his mind. Now understanding that the deep truths he seeks are already there in his head, Wonhyo abandons his trip to China and returns home. Hank's situation is a bit different from Wonhyo's, but he has to get over his initial disgust so that he can partake of the fresh water issuing from Manny's dead mouth.

Would I recommend the film? Yes, but I'd warn you to be prepared for some major, major weirdness. Using a corpse to explore life and relationships smacks of something Tim Burton might do; Burton has long been a fan of using the ugly to explore and represent the beautiful. At the same time, the surreal strangeness of having a superpowered corpse for a companion takes us to the edge of Spike Jonze territory: for much of the movie, we're not really sure whether Manny's reanimation is merely a function of Hank's hallucinations, and Jonze, surprisingly philosophical as a director, loves to explore the What is real? question in his movies. In conclusion: go see "Swiss Army Man" if you want, but be advised that you'll be in for a very strange, and strangely entertaining, experience.


SJHoneywell said...

I have to admit, I'm curious to see this just because it's not that often that something with this weird of a premise gets a major release--sort of a Cast Away meets Weekend at Bernies meets Lars and the Real Girl.

Radcliffe's choices in roles are interesting. He's got a great deal of freedom in that now, so I applaud that. Radcliffe never has to work again if he doesn't want to, so he can make whatever movies genuinely interest him rather than doing everything he can to remain a major player. Elijah Wood's post-LotR career has followed a similar trajectory because he's free to do as he wishes. Good on 'em both.

Kevin Kim said...

Sorry to have spoiled the whole film for you (or did you skip my review to write your comment?). That said, the film, even spoiled, is a very different experience when viewed than when read about.

I saw Radcliffe on an interview once, during which he talked about how much money he has: "I never have to worry about money again," he said matter-of-factly. Wow. You and I should be so lucky, right?