Swiss Army Man

MPAA Rating: R | Rating: ★★★★
Release year: 2016
Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, WTF Director: The Daniels

Swiss Army Man is a veritable paradox. A sad comedy about friendship and loneliness, life and death, fantasy and reality, fear and farts. Yes, farts. There is a lot of flatulence in Swiss Army Man, mostly emitting from a dead corpse named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), the new best friend of Hank (Paul Dano), a suicidal man trapped on an island and desperate to find his way home. The film may have spawned a new genre: WTF.

If the premise of Swiss Army Man sounds ridiculous or immature, let’s remember something important here: everybody farts. Everybody poops. You’re probably holding in a fart right now. Be honest. The thing is–and this is part of Swiss Army Man‘s point–talking about farts, let alone make an entire film focused around them, is a social taboo, a lack of propriety and maturity, something which makes junior high boys giggle but really isn’t something worth giving a lot of our attention. It’s embarrassing and disgusting and off-putting. So we hold our farts in, or we hide them from public, not allowing others to see or experience the gaseous waste emerging from us.

Swiss Army Man places farts as a parallel to our loneliness and pain. Just as we hide our flatulence, so too we hide our sadness and depression, the loneliness and ennui and rage which bubbles under the surface. Even though everyone else may be experiencing this pain, it’s not something we may feel free to share, especially in a public setting where ridicule is a strong possibility. The film asks us to confront the universal fears of shame and loneliness, the fear of being unloved or unloveable. Through a bizarre approach, Swiss Army Man manages to address these feelings with sincere empathy and pathos. The film made me feel like a junior higher again, partly because the farts are funny, and partly because it shone a light on the insecurities and fears I have about myself, fears which began during early adolescence. I bet I’m not alone.

The vibe of Swiss Army Man feels akin to watching Lars and the Real Girl if it was directed by Michel Gondry. It has sincere whimsy and fantastical elements which somehow complement its deeply despondent central character(s). Hank and Manny frolic together, playing in a make-believe world of their own creation. The film doesn’t treat Manny like a hallucination or manifestation of Hank (though he does make a comment that starvation may be playing a factor with his perception of reality). Manny has agency and heart, a fully-developed character and a remarkable performance by Radcliffe. Dano plays the same character he plays in most of his films–an artsy loner who looks like an everyman, but has something potentially dark or disturbing lurking under the surface. Dano is great, but it’s really Radcliffe’s movements and musings which are the heart of the film, and I hope he gets some acclaim or awards for his portrayal of Manny.

I can’t describe much of Swiss Army Man‘s plot without feeling like I’ve spoiled the experience. Potential audiences will either be intrigued or disgusted with the premise, so consider me a member of the small “intrigued” crowd. I left the theater feeling a strange mix of profound sadness and effervescent joy. In some ways, Swiss Army Man is like a musical. The directors, Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively known as “Daniels”), have a background in directing music videos for bands like Passion Pit and Foster the People. Music–both diegetic and non-diegetic–pulse throughout the story, imbuing it with youthful energy. The songs and soundtrack to Swiss Army Man are integral to its style and form, as well as creating a fantasy world where corpses can sing and dance without that feeling unrealistic or weird. Swiss Army Man dares to look at some of the darker or stranger parts of ordinary reality and examine them in the light of imaginative world-building and the curiosity of a child.

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