Swiss Army Man
Written and Directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
One of the hopes that people come to the Sundance Film Festival with is that they will see something wholly unique, something that they have never seen or imagined before. Swiss Army Man is that film. This feeling happens pretty quickly, as Hank (Paul Dano) is a man stranded on an island, on the verge of killing himself, when he sees a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) that’s washed ashore. He rushes to it, searching for signs of life, but only finding that this corpse won’t stop farting. The scene does this strange thing where it’s funny, then it goes on too long so it’s not funny anymore, but it keeps going so then it upgrades to really funny because it just won’t stop.
Eventually, the corpse starts farting so much that the flatulence acts as a propeller in the water. Hank straddles the corpse like a jetski, riding it like a stallion across the sea as glorious and triumphant music scores the bizarre sequence. Taking it a step further, Hank exposes the ass of the corpse to increase the speed. It shouldn’t work, almost none of this film should work, but it does. It gloriously does.
To go into the plot much further would risk spoiling some of the wonderful surprises, both comedic and emotional, that the film by writers/directors The Daniels (Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan) has in store. Swiss Army Man, even with a running gag with a farting corpse, manages to unexpectedly mine real heart and emotion out of the story and these characters, and yes, even the act of farting. Themes like love, friendship, self-respect, isolation and the crushing effects of modern society are touched upon thoughtfully by Swiss Army Man.
There’s a wonderful sense of visual comedy in how the film is constructed by the directing duo and their cinematographer, Larkin Seiple. They’re able to set up punchlines and execute them without having to have a character walk you through it, or resort to cheap gags. Consider when Hank gets sick of the farting. He happens upon a cork. The next shot cuts to the corpse. You can do the math of what is going to happen next. There’s a magical sort of feeling in the kinetic editing employed by Matthew Hannam that is constantly in engagement with the audience. The Daniels and Hannam know just how to take an absurd joke and run with it through quick cuts that heighten the reality of the gags. To review them here would lessen the bizarre quality of witnessing them firsthand, but trust that they are inventive in ways you couldn’t imagine. Yes, fart jokes are inherently cheap, and Swiss Army Man is full of them. Yet it is full of the most imaginative, ingenious and yes, even profound fart jokes ever put on screen.
There’s a delightful surreality that sets into the film’s score by members of Manchester Orchestra. We first hear it when Hank begins singing a tune to himself in the opening, which then morphs into the score as the scene progresses and gets more bizarre. This is largely the implementation that the score takes throughout the film, a curious blend of in-scene sounds of Hank and Manny singing that gets magnified through non-diegetic scoring.
Paul Dano is a largely underappreciated actor, I dare you to find a role he was lacking in. As Hank, Dano brings the necessary sense of authentic isolation and loneliness but also proves an equally strong hand in comedic moments. At a certain point, the corpse learns to speak and gets named Manny. Daniel Radcliffe is marvelously hilarious and touching in his deadpan portrayal of Manny, rolling off sincere, if crass, realizations about the world that Hank is trying to get back to. Radcliffe and Dano work together as an incredible buddy comedy pair. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a welcome presence in a smaller role, driving home some hilarious moments herself.
Before going into the screening, I asked the friend who had joined me if she had looked up what we were about to see. She hadn’t. I gave her a quick rundown: “It’s about a guy stranded on an island who finds a corpse and becomes friends with it…..We’ll see what happens.” What happened was we walked out of a film that is stupidly, ridiculously hilarious yet also managed to be one of the most genuine, thoughtful and heartwarming films I’m likely to see at the festival. It’s pure, mad cinematic magic.