Swiss Army Man (2016)
D/W: Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert. DP: Larkin Seiple. Starring: Paul Dano/Daniel Radcliffe/Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
Premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Swiss Army Man quickly divided its audiences. Receiving either high praise for its inventiveness and unique story, others apparently left the screening early in disgust or perplexity. This sort of reaction is always a fascinating one. As now entering the cinema begs the question, what team will you join?
Swiss Army Man is, for me, one of the films of the year. In a climate of sequels and remakes, a piece of work so creative should not be ignored. The film centers on Hank (Paul Dano) who is lost on an island, a circumstance never explained. Upon his last moments with a noose around his neck he sees a body wash ashore. This body is that of Daniel Radcliffe who later is named Manny. Unable to leave the corpse and head into the next life, Hank uses Manny to get to another shore and attempt to journey home.
Dano has worked across studio projects and independents, most recently in Youth and the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson biopic, Love & Mercy. His lankiness and wide face give Hank a natural awkward charm. Dano’s Hank begins to talk to the corpse (eventually named Manny) whose body slowly becomes paramount to Hank’s survival. Manny’s flatulence is used to get them through dangers as well as a source of discussion about societal norms. It would be silly to say this is a film about a farting corpse though it is integral to the plot. But if that is all you can see, then maybe you should leave now and head back to your Transformers rentals.
Dano’s delivery remains in desperation and companionship, giving Hank full philosophical reasoning to his imagination. Radcliffe, who has steadily worked in indies since his Harry Potter time, is Dano’s only screen partner and handles all the physicality well. Although Radcliffe’s Manny eventually talks his mobility is limited so Dano’s Hank lifts and carries Manny around. Radcliffe’s childlike yet man shaped wonder at Dano’s creativity is entrancing. The pair’s chemistry is an intriguing blend of friendship, imagination and ingenuity. What depths do you go to survive in a crisis? What would keep you focused on returning home? The mind itself creates Hank’s magic realism and Manny’s animation to cope with his situation and makes Swiss Army Man a fascinating film.
The Daniels, as they credit themselves, wrote and directed this, their first feature. They also won the dramatic directing award at Sundance. With a slew of shorts to their names, the Daniels bring a clear vision to Swiss Army Man. Montages are not merely used as tricks of passages of time, but to create spirit and energy on screen that the story of a man lost in nature would normally lack. Essentially Radcliffe’s Manny becomes the corpse sized equivalent of Hank’s Swiss army knife, if he had one. Original music is placed well to keep the pace moving as the pair journey closer to civilization.
Certainly Swiss Army Man might not be for everyone. Yet its vivacity and creativity is a clear standout and these young successful actors reiterate how challenging ones self can produce wondrous things. Essentially the film is a rumination on love and life in the context of survival. Similar to the volleyball Tom Hanks befriends in Cast Away, Swiss Army Man gives its character another human and produces a memorable piece of cinema.