Swiss Army Man Review
Swiss Army Man, the feature directorial debut of Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (collectively known as DANIELS), is a film that, by all rights, should not be. It’s a mixture of the bizarre and the intensely normal, of surrealism and harsh reality, and of the disgusting with the sentimental. Its premise is strange and frankly uncomfortable. And, yes, much of the plot revolves around the farts of a talking corpse.
You can probably see where I’m taking this by now. Yeah, it’s fantastic.
For those who aren’t in the know, Swiss Army Man stars Paul Dano as Hank, a dejected young man who happens to be stranded on a desert island, and Daniel Radcliffe as Manny, a pale human corpse that drifts into Hank’s desolate existence when he quite literally drifts ashore.
Hank soon discovers that Manny has a number of useful survival skills, including farts so powerful they could put a Jet-Ski to shame, an erection that functions as a makeshift compass, and the propensity for speech, despite his definitive deadness. The duo soon form a macabre friendship, and therein lies the focus of the film: the bond between a man and his corpse.
The richest scenes of the film for DANIELS, Dano, and Radcliffe alike highlight the bond between Hank and Manny. Several sequences halfway through the movie richly illustrate Hank explaining to Manny the ins and outs of human life, as Manny has lost all of his memories of his life before death. These scenes take place largely in one simple woodland setting, but the intricate attention to lighting and set design as well as Dano and Radcliffe’s dedicated performances bring to life a peculiar series of lessons. In the forest, DANIELS craft a world where Hank, and by extension Manny, are everything to each other. They serve as each other’s only mentors, students, and friends.
This utopian dreamworld of Hank and Manny’s forest is depicted for less than an hour of the film’s 97-minute runtime, but DANIELS still manage to fully depict an incredible space where time seems to be fluid; Hank and Manny construct intricate shelters and outfits in seemingly no time at all, and the hours they seem to spend together could just as easily be months. A recurring theme of the film is an escape from societal constraints, and DANIELS seem to regard a clearly continuous passage of time as such a constraint.
Swiss Army Man is in large part a film that wears its existentialist themes with a badge of honor. Manny’s dialogue is often dedicated to his inability to understand the strangeness of human behavior (specifically, their aversion to farts); he is bewildered by the roadblocks to happiness that living humans seem to construct for themselves. The world that Hank and Manny build together is in many ways a world free of the anxieties and habits of everyday life, a world that is constructed purely for the pursuit of one’s own happiness.
Of course, the safe haven in the woodlands that the man and the corpse construct together is impermanent, and Hank and Manny’s joyous journey is eventually cut short by stark reality. Still, the sequences in the woods contain the heart of the film, a heart that is filled with light (often quite literally, thanks to cinematographer Larkin Seiple), levity, and simplicity. Radcliffe and Dano together bring to life a relationship that is free of practicality, habit, and pretense. DANIELS are to be commended for creating a film that makes its audience wish for a life where they can be themselves, and pass gas freely.