Movies · Reviews

Swiss Army Man’s Fart Is In the Right Place, and Sometimes That’s Enough

It is, as the French say, unique.
Swiss Army Man
By  · Published on January 24th, 2016

For better or worse, you’ve never quite seen a film like Swiss Army Man. Yeah, yeah, you’ve heard that one too many times to buy it again, but this time it’s true. (I know, you’ve heard that one before too, but just let me have this.) It’s a creatively affecting tale of depression and loneliness that also features a man riding a flatulent corpse like a jet ski during the incredibly powerful, fist-pumping opening credits.

It is, as the French say, unique.

Hank (Paul Dano) is stuck on a desert island and has been for weeks. Food and water are scarce, he’s used every scrap piece of trash to send out pleas of help into the sea, and he’s at the end of his rope. He literally has his neck in a noose, but he stops when a body washes ashore before his eyes. The man is dead. The man is gassy. Hank rides him off the island.

The pair land on a rocky shore banked by a lush and deep forest, and refusing to let his savior go Hank carries the corpse with him into the woods. It’s not long before Hank realizes his new friend has other skills to offer involving water delivery, projectile weapons, wood chopping, and more. The corpse begins talking too – his name is Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) – but death has left him a bit slow in the head leading to conversations in which Hank educates Manny on life, love, boobs, and movies. “If you don’t know Jurassic Park, you don’t know shit,” he tells him at one point. There’s also the matter of the woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) Hank loves back home, the woman who’s driving his need to be rescued, and the role she plays in both of their fates.

It’s rare to find a film that mixes serious themes of regret, sadness, and isolation with an incredibly sophomoric imagination — did I mention Manny’s flailing erection? — but writers/directors The Daniels (Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert) have crafted just such a creatively moving and inventively dizzying concoction of farts and feelings with their feature debut. There’s perhaps not enough of the serious up front and a bit too much of the goofy, but the film’s technical polish keeps all of it moving forward with the promise that something even crazier, more unexpected, and possibly heartbreaking is just around the corner.

It’s the ridiculousness of the situation that hits viewers first from the incessant amounts of gas to the banter with a dead man, and the action and antics are all presented with a beautifully captured visual sheen and slick editing that ramps up and slows down some action beats for maximum effect. It feels at times like a hyperkinetic short film or music video, but stretched out to feature length. It holds the attention for the extended time due to more than just the skilled execution on the visual front and the humorous content.

We’re engaged just as much by Hank’s broken psyche and Dano’s performance. He’s always been an actor who seems most at home with characters who’ve been beaten down by life or even by the fists of others. Sad, disillusioned people — he’s early Philip Seymour Hoffman without the self-loathing — are his home, and Hank quickly takes up residence. We learn what brought him to his current predicament and what’s fueling his current state of mind, and it’s easy to see the complex and devastating strands of Robin Williams’ Parry from Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King in Hank’s DNA.

Radcliffe has, well it’s not the tougher role necessarily, but it’s definitely the strangest of his career. As a corpse he does very little of his own moving around and is instead carried, dragged, dropped, etc. A large portion of his screen-time consists of him farting, sometimes bare-assed, and his condition limits the degree of range he can explore with his performance.

As down as the film gets, it’s no small miracle that it remains so damn poppy and punchy. As the story develops and more information is revealed the film succeeds at hitting viewers in the gut where moments before it was serving as a gut-buster. There’s a somber exploration of emotional turmoil and isolation (self-imposed and otherwise) here working hand in hand with masturbation gags.

That blend is finely tuned, but both still find minor issues along the way thanks to multiple return trips to the broad-comedy well and a slightly muddled dramatic wrap-up. Gas-related gags hang in the air for too long, and you’re never far enough away from the next one. Slightly more damaging, the emotional threads that weave together in the third act go a few knots too far resulting in a somewhat convoluted conclusion. The heartbreaking kick to the gut is there, but it needs a bit of untangling.

Swiss Army Man is a visually inventive and energetic hybrid of the despondent, the immature, and the ridiculous, and while it most certainly won’t work for everyone it’s almost guaranteed to work for someone. One may seem inconsequential, but sometimes that’s all it takes — one step, one kind word, one moment of acceptance telling you that you’re not alone.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.