Virtue in Originality: A Review of 'Swiss Army Man'

By Daniel Ungar

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For a movie literally propelled by farts, Swiss Army Man is remarkably touching. I feel somewhat disconcerted writing a review about a film that spends a considerable portion of its dialogue and audio on masturbation and flatulence — especially in which my first two sentences explicitly mention both — but I feel that’s the covert intention of the film, to get us talking about our suppressed humanity.

The film follows Paul Dano as Hank, an adolescent who hasn’t quite gotten over puberty yet, stranded on a deserted island and brought to the brink of suicide by sheer boredom. With a noose around his neck and his feet precariously balanced on a cooler, he takes a wistful last look around, and spots a corpse washed up on shore. Startled by the sight, Hank knocks over the cooler and starts to choke on the noose, only to be saved by the frailty of the rope as it snaps and gives Dano’s character renewed life. Upon investigating the beached corpse with the hopes of his salvation, Hank’s morale is cruelly shattered when he discovers the corpse’s only sign of life is the natural byproduct of decomposition: excessive flatulence.

The oddly cinematic image of Paul Dano riding Daniel Radcliffe’s fart-propelled body through the ocean to safer lands provides the foundation from which the rest of the film is constructed. The movie was conceived on this specific moment, a moment directing duo ‘Daniels’ must have had trouble pitching repeatedly during their time at the Sundance Institute, in which they were advised by experienced writers and filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, among others. But from this uncanny image, the duo was able to construct an emotionally affecting, and borderline agonizing, story. And I know it’s hard to take seriously.

The film’s heart lies in the strange bond forged between Hank and Manny (Radcliffe); Hank relying on Manny’s seemingly endless arsenal of special powers to survive in the wilderness, and Manny relying on Hank for knowledge and experience of reality. Hank, attempting to satisfy Manny’s boundless — or boundaryless — curiosity of ‘the real world’, essentially parents the vitalized corpse, teaching him about social behavior and interactions such as riding the bus, masturbation, and talking to women, which the two act out in a very bizarre sequence of scenes, complete with Dano dressed in drag, replicating the appearance and personality of Sarah, the girl who Manny knows from the background of Hank’s phone. As Hank’s reenactments of real-world interactions gain in complexity, so does his relationship with Manny, and the two of them, who were both essentially dead at the outset of the film, nurture each other back to life. The symbolic image of Radcliffe breathing oxygen into Dano’s mouth can either be understood as the completion of their renewed sense of life, or as the consummation of their relationship — both are viable.

Swiss Army Man is a tale of social consciousness, driven by Manny’s complete disregard for societal norms and appropriate conversation topic, in which Dano is forced to answer questions about farting, masturbation, and his own insecurities. Though the film takes place almost entirely in the wilderness, it’s undeniably relevant, commenting on contemporary society, on the internet, and on individuality. Perhaps the most poignant line of the film comes from Hank, in trying to explain social media: “Every girl was more special before the internet.”

This film is unabashedly self-aware, keenly conscious of the absurdity of its concept and content. Daniels fearlessly navigate the fine line between insanity, inanity, and self-perception against social perception, and seemingly address the innate question of whether they themselves are crazy — or whether they even care — with the final image of the film. But perhaps the most telling example of just how cognizant the film is, comes from one of Manny’s last lines, in which he asks — though I can’t recall the quote verbatim — something along the lines of, “Am I just a guy with special powers?” A fitting following line, as I imagine Radcliffe could or should have suggested, would have been, “I can act and even sing too!” And in his portrayal of a corpse whose lines are necessarily spoken with lockjaw, Radcliffe is quite convincing.

Daniels, the directing duo composed of Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, are established short-form content creators, known for their whimsical and eccentric music videos, most notably ‘Turn Down for What’. Swiss Army Man, the directing duo’s first feature length film, debuted at Sundance to quite the controversial response, prompting some at the screening to walk out early. But even with the backlash surrounding Sundance, the film was bought and championed by A24 Films, a distribution company known for taking risks, building its reputation off films such as Spring Breakers, Locke, and Ex Machina. In this sense, Swiss Army Man is no exception. Even if a story driven by farts and steered by erections doesn’t sound the most appealing, the film, like most from A24, is stylized with exceptional cinematography by Larkin Seiple — who also shot ‘Turn Down for What’ — and a beautiful score composed almost entirely of vocals by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of Manchester Orchestra.

In a summer saturated with sequels, Swiss Army Man offers a fresh alternative to the myriad of formulaic big studio productions typical of this time of year. The summer powerhouses just don’t offer anything new or exciting, and that’s not just a dig aimed at sequels, though it very well might be a commentary on the current state of Hollywood considering the list of summer releases: Independence Day, Finding Dory, Captain America, X-Men, and on the list goes. Swiss Army Man was the first movie I’ve seen this summer, and for no other reason than just not caring enough about any of the current Hollywood franchises nor their expensive explosions. I’d much rather see something unique, and though I was initially put off by the exaggerated use of farting to draw laughs, Daniels’ ability to juxtapose undeniable heart with bizarre imagery and dialogue make Swiss Army Man a success, and one of the most original and inventive films in recent memory.

 Daniel Ungar was thinking about signing off this piece with a fart joke, but thought better of it. Happy Fourth of July.