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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Review: Exploring the insanity of humanity with the bizarre “Swiss Army Man”

    Theatrical poster for Swiss Army Man starring Daniel Radcliffe.

    One man is a lunatic, but a whole species is humanity. Everyone in their most private moments contemplates their personal insanity: weirdness, incompatibility with society and a general wandering through what we call living. Some stray farther off the path than others, and the journey of one such wanderer makes up the strangest movie of the summer, “Swiss Army Man,” from directing duo Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert).

    Opening scene: a man alone on a beach attempts to hang himself as a dead body washes up on shore. “Swiss Army Man” wastes no time diving into the journey of Hank (Paul Dano) and his dead pal Manny (Daniel Radcliffe). Without any hesitation the film signals to viewers that this story is odd—to put it mildly—in unforgettable ways.

    Give it 10 minutes and you’ll know whether this film will breach your personal capacity for bizarreness. There’s a reason that “Swiss Army Man” made waves through film circuits with a reputation as “the farting corpse movie”.
    The accomplishment of the film comes from its ability to explore what it means to be human a la Spike Jonze (“Her”, “Being John Malkovich”) and Charlie Kaufman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, “Anomalisa”) in spite of, or even perhaps because of the gratuitous flatulence and coarseness involved.

    Hank is not a hero, he is a human being—one that likely has a few more screws loose than the average person. While Manny washes up as a very obviously dead corpse it isn’t long before his special nature reveals itself—Manny’s unstoppable flatulence leads Hank to ride the gaseous corpse across the ocean like a majestic, eco-friendly jet ski. Yes, that is a real thing that happens on screen.

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    As Manny begins to develop more human-like characteristics, such as the ability to talk, he inspires Hank to give living another go. Despite these wondrous occurrences, which may or may not exist as a figment of Hank’s imagination, our disheveled protagonist finds himself in a rough patch, lost and alone in the wilderness.

    At the outset of “Swiss Army Man,” Hank quite literally hangs out at death’s door before Manny’s arrival spurs a journey back towards society and more accurately towards life itself. Hank explains to Manny that they must head home, and in response Manny— apropos of a blank slate—curiously asks what home is. To Hank, home isn’t a place but a life fulfilled. Without a true home, Hank ran away to the wilderness.

    Hank slowly teaches Manny the many intricacies of life, and this acts as the backbone of the film, both plot-wise and thematically: Can a living man teach a dead one how to live? Will the act of teaching that dead man awaken Hank from a catatonic state?

    Much like real life, the one and a half-hour film is certainly not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. The title “Swiss Army Man” plays on Manny’s ability to do anything Hank is in need of (i.e. the ability to shoot a grappling hook out of his mouth to climb terrain or guide Hank via his compass/erection). Manny acts as an organic magician without a pulse. Of course, Manny’s greatest feat comes in nurturing Hank’s spirit back to life by echoing back Hank’s life lessons.

    As the film progresses, Manny matures before the audience. At first, Hank spoon feeds him an idealized existence centered around love, happiness and acceptance. Hank creates intricate worlds from scraps of trash to show Manny the idealized life that he so desires.

    Unfortunately, real life is messy. There’s pain, hurt feelings and inescapable reality that the two have much trouble dealing with.

    Daniel Radcliffe’s performance as the childlike Manny illuminates the neurotic counter-productive nature that so many of us possess. When personal conflict weeds its way between the two, Manny bluntly states that he feels this invisible distance between the two that neither will acknowledge nor know how to talk about.

    This distance makes Manny feel sad, alone and fearful that things will never be the same. Childlike wisdom from a dead corpse, a feat only “Swiss Army Man” could pull off.

    Directing duo Daniels make a big splash with their first feature-length film and deservedly so. Although the film struggles from a sluggish pacing in its second half, the duo holistically display a deft talent for film making.
    The soundtrack matches the tone and heart of the movie with intimate, joyful tracks that seamlessly fade in and out. Often one character sings a lyric before the backing track whisks the scene away—not surprising from directors with a background in music videos.

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    The directors’ conscious choice to subvert tropes and play with audience reactions may be the most interesting aspect of the film. Never before have I experienced a film where the act of farting transformed from gross, to humorous and ultimately endearing. Endearing farts, trust me it’s a thing.

    As Hank and Manny struggle back toward home, they must find the balance between the ideal and reality. Are dance parties populated by intricately crafted trash-beings a sign of true humanity or a sad echo of a broken man? The climax of the film answers this question with the duo’s jarring return to civilization. Much like life, and the film as a whole, the ending plays out sloppily but ultimately remains poignant.

    What does it mean to be human? “Swiss Army Man” stumbles its way through many answers on the trail of Hank and Manny. Perhaps it’s celebrating our individual flaws and lunacy, or maybe instead learning to reign them into a level conducive to society.

    Life is sloppy, and the film reflects this by refusing to dole out an easy, clean answer. Despite the pronounced oddity of the film, which at times becomes overpowering, its undeniable tone of joy shines through.

    Humans are weird and broken. I am. You are. So “Swiss Army Man” would like to give you some tips—don’t overthink it. Enjoy life, because the one certainty is that our runtime is finite. Don’t be alone, even if it’s the easy path. Dance like no one is watching. Eat cheese puffs like they’re your last meal.
    If you’re lucky, at the end of the day you can join Hank in his final declaration to the world, “We sang, and we danced, and it was beautiful.”

    Follow Alex Furrier on Twitter.

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