For better or worse, ‘Swiss Army Man’ the first wholly singular cinematic experience of 2016

-cracks knuckles-

So…where were we?

I wouldn’t consider this a return from my self-imposed hiatus from reviewing films. I’m still in a state of weird flux as to how to continue with….with….let’s call it “my hobby.” I think tentatively, from here on out, I’ll keep it to movies that I actually have something “different” or “personal”  to yammer on about.

A movie so singular and sincere has emerged from the ether that is practically taunting me to write something about it in an attempt to define it. Like many, I had read the stories earlier this year about a film called Swiss Army Man back when it debuted at Sundance. Overblown headlines casually dismissed the film as “the movie with Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse” and focused instead on audience walk-outs.  The premise alone was enough to pull me in. The fact that A24, a distributer that has already put out two winners and personal favorites of mine this very year (The Witch and Green Room, respectively),  opted to give it a wide release was the final straw in ensuring my ass would be in the seat should it reach Oklahoma.

Luckily it did hit one theater in my area, and while I don’t think it will necessarily set the world aflame given what it is competing against at the local multiplex this summer, it has perhaps the most cult potential of any film I’ve seen this year.

It’s so unique that I dare not really compare it to anything else. I’d quickly classify it as a “buddy travel film” but that would be a disservice to everything it holds. Yes, there are fart and boner jokes. Yes, it gets thematically heavy and almost frustratingly complex. It however meshes those two worlds (the juvenile and pretentious) in such a way that it succeeds entirely in spite of itself. It is at once both a celebration of the absurd and mundane, and I can’t wait to talk to you about it.

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The plot:

“Hank, stranded on a deserted island and about to kill himself, notices a corpse washed up on the beach. He befriends it, naming it Manny, only to discover that his new friend can talk and has a myriad of supernatural abilities…which may help him get home.” – IMDb.com

The review:

I feel as if there is going to be a large portion of people that see this movie and ask, “What the fuck was that?” This is a general reaction that I fully believe was co-writers/co-directors Daniel Scheiner and Daniel Kwan implicit intention of invoking. I can only assume they wear those reported walk-outs as badges of honor given just how intentionally strange their film gets.

The beauty of Swiss Army Man is that, like the multipurpose corpse for which it is named, it is a film that will mean almost anything to anyone. You could watch Swiss Army Man and find a movie about raising a child. You could find a movie about the ways broken people help other broken people. It could be about overwhelming loneliness and the power of love and hope. You could even simply view it as just a movie about a lost guy hanging out with a farting corpse and getting into wacky adventures. To me, it was a deeply personal yet completely universal film revolving around themes of growing up and accepting yourself for every little weird fault.

It takes about 5 solid minutes for the film to establish its universe. The next thing you know Hank (Paul Dano) is riding on the titular corpse Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) as if he were a jet ski, propelled by the later’s farts. As far as meet-cutes go, it is hands down the year’s most memorable.

From the get go, this movie rides on whether the chemistry between in its two respective leads. Luckily both Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe turn in absolutely stellar performances, which also no doubt come in as their most intimate given just how much poking and prodding the pair do to one another over the film’s runtime. I’d be hard pressed to name a film out of this year that rode so high on the complete commitment of its stars.

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I don’t want to accuse Dano of being typecast, but the man excels at playing lovable weirdoes. That isn’t to say the guy has anything left to prove. After going toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, I’m all in for whatever Dano is selling. When we meet Hank, he is literally at the end of his rope as he prepares to hang himself to escape the boring monotony of stranded desert island life. Enter: Manny, who may or may not actually be a magical, talking corpse. Don’t worry. The movie will give you a definitive answer before all is said and done.

As the movie continues, we learn more and more about how Hank got to where he is, both physically and psychologically. There is a girl back home, played by the lovely and underrated Mary Elisabeth Winstead, he has a thing for and the movie even plays into the creepier aspects of this, layering Hank’s plight even more past the cliche of the tradition “journey home” arc so common in films. Conversely, Manny comes from a very different play. Where Hank is stuck sorting through his own issues, Radcliffe’s Manny is a completely clean slate. He’s a toddler, ready to know what everything is and how the world works. Soon enough, he blasts through adolescence and becomes corrupted in ways we all do by shame and self-doubt.

Those who’ve dismissed Radcliffe as a “flash-in-the-pan” can officially step aside. Of all the Harry Potter alumni, he’s taken what’d I consider to be the more interesting, multi-faced role choices; this latest, to be blunt, being the best of his entire career thus far (Potter included).

I’m not positive I can even overstate just how good Radcliffe is. When he experiences happiness at the simplest of things, it is utterly infectious. And when the sadness of his coming age and eventual belief that he is disgusting is crushing. It’s the most likable performance from an actor this year so far and as unlikely as it will ultimately be, I’d love to see Radcliffe get some attention next year once awards’ season starts collectively bothering all of us.

While both Dano and Radcliffe give phenomenal performances, they wouldn’t have a prayer without the direction and script of the Daniels. The pair are known primarily for their music video work, including a little bit of magic you may remember from a couple years back…

Swiss Army Man is their feature debut, and I’d be hard pressed to point to an example of a director or directors not knowing any better paying off so incredibly. The Witch, another cinematic highlight for me this year, also came from a first time writer and director – Robert Eggers. Whereas that film felt like it came from an industry veteran in just how precise and nuanced it was in its execution, the Daniels go in the exact opposite direction that will no doubt polarize more than just a few people.  I, however, see their success with Swiss Army Man as a testament to cinema’s fluidity. There is no one “right” way to craft a movie after all. The Daniels saw no limitations when assembling their first feature, and bypassed good taste and convention as the brought it all in; a gamble that could have easily led to a clusterfuck of ideas, visuals and tones. Luckily for us however, they crafted a film is philosophical and juvenile in equal measures, and it plumbs deep emotional and spiritual ideas without ever being pretentious. In other words, it’s a movie with something to teach you but also laugh along side you as it casually tosses around fart and boner jokes left and right. 

Given their most known for outlandish visuals, it should come as no surprise that the film looks as evocative as it is ludicrous. Cinematographer Larkin Seiple takes a $4 million dollar movie and made it look like it cost $40 million. When the modest budget becomes somewhat obvious the Daniels take it up a notch by implementing a handmade style reminiscent of Michel Gondry. 

The music is another aspect that elevates the film past its price range, enlisting Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of Manchester Orchestra to handle score duties. At times, it feels as if the two are mocking/parodying the care-free jungle jams of Karen O’s classic Where the Wild Things Are score. A minor nitpick, but for the most part the film’s score works best when it brazens its own singular, weird path with the exception of two instances when John Williams’ theme to Jurassic Park is used to better effect than the fucking Jurassic Park sequel that came out last year!  

This isn’t going to be a movie for everyone, and for that its biggest strength (its uniqueness) could also be viewed as its biggest flaw. I’d be lying if EVERYTHING in this film made sense to me. Just because I watch a few movies doesn’t make me an expert and things do (constantly) go over my head. As I said before, there is a lot of interpretation when tackling this movie, and that isn’t for everyone. Hell, I’ve dedicated one day a week where I blatantly try to avoid thinking too hard about a movie. So I can’t particularly fault anyone for not liking this movie as it is REALLY weird and more than a little hefty in its themes. Personally, I like a movie that challenges, enlightens and entertains me. A true triple threat; a cinematic Jennifer Lopez if you will, but recognize that people don’t need really need more than just one of those elements.

Regardless of whether you think you may or may not like Swiss Army Man, I fully recommend you give it a shot while it’s still in theaters at the very least. I can at least promise that you’ll have a wholly memorable experience with it.

It’s a film that’s going to buzz around in your brain a lot longer than the latest Independence Day or Kevin Hart/Dwayne Johnson vehicle, whether you ultimately liked the movie or not. It’s a movie with real vision and different; something we don’t see much of in a landscape that is largely uniform with sequels, prequels, reboots and all-female re-imaginings.

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One thought on “For better or worse, ‘Swiss Army Man’ the first wholly singular cinematic experience of 2016

  1. Pingback: Sweet ’16: 25 of the best films from the worst year ever (that I actually saw) | Sharks with Laserbeams

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