Swiss Army Man (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, 2016)
From the opening scene, Swiss Army Man forces you to be on board with its gimmick or leave. Hank (Paul Dano) is at his wits end deserted on an island preparing to hang himself when the corpse of Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore. Once the corpse begins farting uncontrollably, Hank removes himself from his makeshift gallows and rides the corpse propelled by its flatulence across the ocean as the title sequence begins.
The presence of the magical, farting corpse has garnished Swiss Army Man quite a bit of notoriety. While I’m sure that it will bring in significantly more money because of it (my screening was overflowing), so much hype can be toxic to such an average film. Despite being straight out of any 10-year-old boy’s imagination, the magical, farting corpse is seen as a unique character in all of Hollywood. Even if it was a truly unique character, the way that Manny as a character is used lacks a similar innovation.
The exact circumstances leading up to Hank being stranded on an island are not stated, but we are aware that he was disastrously unhappy. He has no close family as his mother passed away when he was very young and he is estranged from his father. His only meaningful interpersonal connection before Manny was a stalker like one with a woman named Sarah, more on that relationship later. As a corpse (or potentially a figment of Hank’s imagination), Manny is a blank slate that’s able to psychoanalyze Hank’s troubles. This is not a new concept. Though traditionally done with children instead of a corpse, using a naïve third party to uncover and question one’s hang-ups and point out the ridiculousness of their anxieties. I understand that Daniels as the directors go by think they are being extremely clever by intercutting the fart and boner jokes with this psychoanalysis, but it leads to an uneven film that’s not nearly as funny or thought provoking as it thinks it is.
Despite my misgivings, the film does have some high points. As Manny and Hank build a friendship and begin to thrive in the forest, I had a lot of fun with what they imagined up. Hank builds both a home for them to live in and a facsimile of his everyday life before running away. This is the major character growth moment in the film, and really does shine. Before Swiss Army Man, Daniels’ directing experience was relegated to music videos, and the montage music video during this moment, set to the hilariously meta song called “Montage”, is easily the most fun moments of the film.
Before finishing, I do feel the need to comment on the treatment of the love interest in the film Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Hank’s infatuation is creepy. Taking covert pictures of and stalking a woman you don’t know is inappropriate and unhealthy. The fact that Manny, who knows nothing outside of what Hank taught him, takes them both straight to her house hints at the stalker tendencies that lie bellow simple infatuation. And while Swiss Army Man doesn’t fall down the inexcusable cliché of having Sarah fall in love with her obsessor, we are meant to sympathize with Hank’s plight. Sarah is portrayed as an unobtainable figure, a holy grail whose only purpose is to drive Hank. As the only woman in the film, I would have appreciated if she was allowed to be a human, not just an object.
Swiss Army Man is an average indie romp with some genuinely entertaining moments stuck in a plot that thinks it’s much deeper and unique than it is. It’s the kind of film that you’d expect to be found on Netflix and slowly build up a cult following a decade from now. Somehow the film managed to avoid that fate and become one of the most talked about films of the year. While the film will be much more profitable because of the attention, I still don’t believe that it’s deserved. My guess is that the current buzz over such an average film will hurt the legacy it would have developed over the next few years otherwise.