I became a fan of the acting of Paul Dano when he played the priest in There Will Be Blood (2007). Still in his early 20s, he managed to hold his own quite well opposite the legendary Daniel Day-Lewis. In Swiss Army Man (2016), Dano manages to carry almost the entire movie, besides his dead sidekick, with just the help of the sidekick himself – Daniel Radcliffe as the reanimated corpse. Both are proving to be very versatile in their choices as actors.
Radcliffe’s character in Swiss Army Man was quite a lot of work to create and to play, as part man, part prop.
The plot may sound absurd and really quite silly, but with a little suspension of disbelief, it can be highly enjoyable. You might even find yourself singing along with the strange soundtrack, besides chortling. You could also get the urge to fart in public, without caring about the social consequences.
Swiss Army Man opens with the depressive Hank (Dano) stranded on a desert island, about to hang himself, when he spots Manny (Radcliffe) on the beach. At first, Manny seems like “just” a dead body, and Hank goes back to his hopeless state. But suddenly, Manny starts to fart, and Hank figures out he can use the corpse’s farts as a propeller, gets on Manny’s back, rides him like a jet ski, and arrives on another beach that appears inhabited.
Gradually, Hank’s teaching Manny about the small details of life and helping him remember (or rather, giving Manny his own memories) bring the cadaver back to life. He begins to talk and to have an erection. The erection serves as a compass to lead them home through the woods.
Manny cannot control his farts or erection (or even the thoughts that come out of his mouth); it’s up to Hank to learn how to harness them to his advantage. Manny can also chop logs with his arms, and has other superhuman functions. Hence, the title “Swiss Army Man.” He can also be rocket man.
For days after the movie, you may catch yourself trying to (re)interpret it – you can take the film at face-value or as a metaphor for the “mental wilderness” of Dano’s character.
How much of all this is just in Hank’s head, even whether he was stranded on an actual island, is really up to the viewer.
Hank finds in Manny someone who won’t judge him, and who totally depends on him. Hank’s life depends even more on Manny, in more ways than one. Hank invests Manny with characteristics he wishes he had himself, and stages scenes with Manny he wishes he would’ve lived himself (for instance, with a woman he admired from a distance but never had the courage to approach).
It’s heart-warming to see with how much zest – or, really, childlike glee – the actors and directors speak about the movie. They’re even happy about how much division it has managed to create among the audience. They must be quite happy as well about the film’s nabbing the top Sundance directorial award.
In a Late Show interview, Radcliffe calls the farts and erection that are the trademarks of Swiss Army Man “beautiful.” It’s a celebration of our little quirks as humans that are somehow considered “bad,” he adds. “It becomes a discussion between a suicidal man and a dead body as to whether life is worth living – but it’s super fun.”
If you look past the film’s childlike silliness, you’ll find some existential depth, and perhaps rescue, at least temporarily, some of your own sense of wonder lost with growing up. Manny, the highly excitable dead body, may just give Hank back the will to live. Hank may want to survive, to find his way out of the woods, to be able to live what Manny couldn’t, having died young.
The film is funny and sad; it’s fluff and philosophy.
I was also already a fan of the film’s two writer-directors (the “Daniels,” Dan Kwan and Dan Scheinert) without knowing it. They directed what’s perhaps my favorite music video ever, also involving a dead body and a bunch of grownups who had forgotten the beauty of their childhood. The creators say they viewed making Swiss Army Man as a sort of summer camp, and the film itself as a celebration of friendship on- and off-screen, and behind the scenes with their team.
They seem super genuine.
PLAYING IN LEIPZIG
I was curious and eager to watch Swiss Army Man, and fortunate to be able to catch it in Leipzig at the Filmkunstmesse, before it came out in the regular circuit. Now you can too, if you missed it – and in its original English. Right this way for showtimes…