Author: Joel Dull
*Content Warning for talk of suicide and body humour*
In 2016 the bizarre, disgusting, and wonderful movie Swiss Army Man was released. It was directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s (known as Daniels) first feature length project. The concept that started the whole film was simple but weird; Daniels wanted to make a film about a dead body that farts and then a stranded man uses that corpse as a jet ski to ride across the ocean as beautiful music plays in the background, and when I first saw the trailer that’s all I thought the movie was going to be about. When I sat down in the theater for one of the only two showings in my home town, I was ready for the completely nonsensical, farce that the trailer had shown me. What I was about to watch, though, was an immensely deep commentary on death, discomfort, and the need for companionship.
It might be a tough sell to say that this movie is deep, but I don’t feel any regrets for using the cliché, you have to see it to believe it, because it’s true. There are so many take aways from this movie, to simply brush it off as a bunch of lewd, sophomoric humor is a drastic failure on the part of the spectator. I recognize that the humor may not be for everybody, but the message the film conveys is important for everybody to consider. To start, the topic of death is immediately apparent as the opening seen is of Paul Dano’s character, Hank, attempting to take his life while stranded on an island. This attempt at death is interrupted by death itself as Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), a dead body, washes up on shore. Paul struggles to break free from the rope around his neck, but it eventually snaps, and he runs to the corpses side. Manny serves as the ultimate symbol for the film’s message of death. Death is gross and weird, and Daniel Radcliffe’s spectacular showcase of physical acting and overall characterization of Manny allows for the topic of flatulence, rigor mortis, and existential dread to be the driving force for the films message. As the film anthropomorphizes Manny, he and Hank begin to search for clues of Manny’s past and the conversations they have lead to the discussion of why people are so embarrassed by human bodily functions like farting and masturbation. Manny is very taken aback by the fact that Hank does not fart in front of him, and however silly the idea of hiding farts from other people may seem, it directs attention to a much larger issue of discomfort between humans. Manny serves as the little child constantly asking, “Why?” while also having enough autonomy to create his own interpretations of life. The film even touches on the theory of the Oedipal complex and its apparent incorporation into almost every aspect of life.
And then there’s the theme of companionship. Hank is dying and Manny is dead, but the development of their relationship shows that at the core of human survival is the need for interaction. Why do people hallucinate when they are dying? Why does our life flash before our eyes? I’m sure there is a very scientific reason for it, but Swiss Army Man drives home the interpretation that humans simply need each other. Hank’s final acts in the film are a gut-wrenching example of that.
About 90% of the film is comprised solely of Hank and Manny. Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe have an undeniable chemistry that is breathtaking. Paul Dano creates a character that has deep emotional problems and he fosters a dialogue with the audience about how Hank is coping with his extreme situation. I previously mentioned that Daniel Radcliffe’s performance is a sight to behold, and I want to reaffirm that point. By definition, Radcliffe is playing a dead person. That statement can make it seem like the performance should be a rather easy one, but the amount of thought that Radcliffe puts into the facial expressions, and overall physicality of Manny is phenomenal. When Manny is not being anthropomorphized, he is used as a “multi-purpose tool guy” in the words of Hank (hence the title), and Radcliffe was physically acting each and every part of it (save a few scenes that would have actually killed him). If the only thing you have seen Radcliffe in is Harry Potter, Swiss Army Man allows Radcliffe to show case how talented of an actor he is.
The technical aspects of the film are equally well done. Daniels’ creative use of montage combined with their experience of music videos and short films create a narrative that grips the audience. The movie uses both fast passed cutting as well as much longer, more drawn out shots to create a diverse cinematic feeling. The fast-paced cuts aid the story and symbolism often times in the form of B-roll as Hank explains different aspects of life to Manny, and the longer shots allow for genuine moments between the characters to act as a breath of fresh air from the constant display of symbolism. The score of the film flows in and out of the actual world of the characters. In some cases, it aids the scene as background and others it comes directly from the characters, much like a musical. Daniels managed to combine their diverse filmmaking experience into a unique feature length film.
Swiss Army Man manages to take cliché questions like, What is life? and What is love? and answer them in a meaningful and honest way. The humor is on the surface sophomoric, but since it is paired with thought provoking symbolism it causes the spectator to reflect on how we as humans handle these topics. In an interview at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, Daniel Radcliffe was asked what he thought about people calling the movie a “farting drama.” His response was that it proves the point of the film; humans tend to be uncomfortable with topics regarding farting, masturbation, and death when they are all intrinsically human concepts. To say that the film is sophomoric deprives it of so much of its depth and, like Radcliffe said, it proves the point that humans are uncomfortable with facing these topics in all their humorous, sad, disgusting glory. Swiss Army Man is dark, funny, and emotional. It provokes thought and emotion and plays with how the two both intertwine and conflict, and it is one of my favorite movies of all time.
JOEL DULL | Give it a chance! | KXSU Arts Reporter