by Marina González
What!? That could be you first reaction when you watch Swiss Army Man (2016). What’s going on in here? If you watch this film without knowing anything about it, you’ probably say that out loud: what’s going on in here? Apparently this is about a dead man (a zombie?) with chronic farting who gets erections when he sees pictures of girls. Weird isn’t it?
The film was screened at the Sundance Festival (where it won Best Directing award) and later obtained Best Film at the Sitges Film Festival in Spain. On the other hand, it has not had an overwhelmingly positive reception, maybe because of its bizarre plot. Part of the Sundance crowd walked out during the screening, unable to find any rhyme or reason to the madness.
Taking into account the starting point of the film, the movie is at the very least surrealist, and restates its surrealism by freaking out more and more as the film moves forward. Hank (Paul Dano) is a castaway that lives in a desert island. Out of the blue he finds a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe) in the process of decomposing. He’s lying by the shore, sea waves hitting him, and all the while farting. This is at the very beginning and as you can imagine the film never even tries to be logical about anything.
The bizarre relationship between man the dead man becomes the centre of gravity of the story. Writers/directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert deliver and absurdly entertaining film debut. They’re having fun trying to demystify death and everything is possible.
At its heart Swiss Army Man is a comedy about two friends, a story about friendship and love; it deals with the friendship between a lonely, suicidal castaway and a dead man that must learn everything again (feelings, love, friendship – in other words, life). It’s as endearing as it is crazy, which makes it really interesting. It raises social relations in the age of communication, as personal relationships have inevitably distorted, and the human connection has totally changed.
As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman said, “We are lonely people in permanent contact” and “Social networks are a trap“. The movie is deeper and more emotional that it may seem on the surface. One of the most interesting things about it is how it gets to the point of endearment; it begins with a hilariously crazy starting point and ends on the subject of friendship, human connection and most important of all, about the society in which we live in isolation.
The corpse, Manny, begins to show signs of something similar to life, but it seems to start from scratch. He does not know anything about life. Hank offers sentimental education provoking the most endearing moments of the film. The corpse seems to be returning to life and Hank is trying to teach him what he has to know about life itself, what do words mean, what are feelings and how to stir emotion, provoking the sweetest and most colorful moments of the film.
Kwan and Scheinert were perhaps influenced by Michel Gondry films like The Science of Sleep (La science des rêves, 2006) and Mood Indigo (L’Ecume Des Tours, 2013). Their style of humor is also reminscent of movies like Airplane! (1980) and Weekend at Bernie’s (1989), though to to bang on about influences and inspirations would be a disservice to the originality of the universe created by the Daniels. The conclusion is that the movie should be watched without bringing in any prejudices or drawing many comparisons.
The special relationship between Manny and Hank feels authentic. The film goes from rude to poetic, from the gross joke to the deep dialogue that make us reflect on love and loneliness. Both Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe know how to transmit the spirit of the film – Dano is convincing as the fearful coward who’s obsessed with returning to society; Radcliffe manages to say a lot while physically not doing practically anything. The soundtrack by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell is brilliant and helps create a dream universe and move us to that imaginary place where the absurd becomes emotional, close and endearing.
The one negative point against the movie is perhaps the ending itself, which feels unbalanced and breaks the rhythm of the film, which ends up weakening it on the whole. In spite of this, it’s an interesting experiment and above all it’s different from what we usually see, which is good enough.
Marina González / Writer (Madrid, Spain – 1985) She graduated in Mining Engineering from the Madrid Politécnica and now works at a renewable energy company, fighting against climate change. She became a film buff during college, splitting her time between books on energy & fuels and film seminars. She began reviewing in 2014, covering the San Sebastián film festival.