Director: ‘The Daniels’ – Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert
Screenplay: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Starring: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Country: USA, Sweden
Running Time: 97 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Swiss Army Man is a film that rode in on a wave of hype after several festival screenings, but I feel it’s hype that both helped and hindered it. Becoming known as ‘the farting corpse movie’, or variations of that, helped give the film a great amount of publicity, but I think many might have dismissed it due to this over-simplified description. Sounding like an even lower brow version of Weekend at Bernies, the film can’t have appealed to the more ‘sophisticated’ cinephiles out there. But, having now watched the film, I’d say they’re missing out on something truly special.
Swiss Army Man opens showing Hank (Paul Dano) stranded on a desert island, preparing to kill himself as he’s given up hope of rescue. However, just as he’s about to do it, he spots a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe), washed up on the shore. This is no ordinary body either. It’s rather flatulent, which initially merely distracts Hank from his suicide attempt. When the farts get more powerful though, Hank realises this ‘wind’ can be harnessed more effectively and uses the corpse as a jet-ski to reach a neighbouring lush island which is littered with rubbish, suggesting it may be inhabited.
Once on the island, Hank struggles to find any more signs of civilization, but develops a great bond with the corpse (named Manny), who miraculously comes alive (if not mobile) after a while. Manny has no memories of his life before though and has many questions about the world around him. This prompts Hank to teach him, using the limited resources around them, whilst simultaneously altering his view of his own miserable existence. In particular, the two of them discuss the subject of love, as they tackle how to approach the elusive girl on the bus, Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who seems to be a part of one or both of their memories.
So what initially sounds like a bad taste comedy becomes a rumination on life more akin to the work of Richard Linklater. It’s certainly as dialogue heavy as his work, once Manny comes alive at least. When I realised this, I was worried the philosophies and debates would become trite and generic (particularly when this is kicked into gear by the on-the-nose question of “what is life?”). However, the film shifts the focus of its theme to that of shame. This works perfectly in terms of offering up ideas not often examined in films, as well as making the inclusion of bodily functions (farting is only the starting point) key to the message being presented that you shouldn’t be ashamed of yourself. We are human, we have bodies that fart and defecate, we have sexual organs that serve a purpose etc. What may seem crude at first is actually a bold way of making a statement about how our adherence to social ‘rules’ and fear of opening up to others can hold us back, keeping us trapped and can often be damaging to our mental wellbeing.
That’s not to say the film is a heavy going, overly cerebral experience though. The farting, on top of further useful functions Manny has in store, such as an erection which acts as a compass, help this become a quirkily funny film. These aspects are handled perfectly too. Their inclusion never feels like a cheap gag – they usually serve a narrative or thematic purpose, but are amusing at the same time. They and how they’re used gets increasingly more bizarre too, offering a wonderfully surreal experience. It’s one of the strangest and most unique films I’ve seen for a while and the wilder aspects of it mean although the philosophical side of things reminded me of a Linklater film, little else does.
Despite both the low and high brow aspects, Swiss Army Man remains emotionally very satisfying too. The relationship between Hank and Manny is surprisingly touching and the film has plenty of uplifting and moving sequences too.
It’s also beautifully and creatively made. Hank shows Manny what the world is like by constructing elaborate models of everyday things using the plant life and rubbish around them. These have been lovingly and imaginatively created by the production design team. Also standing out is the sound design and music. The directors (‘The Daniels’ – Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert) used to make music videos and called on two members of Manchester Orchestra, Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, to compose the score. The Daniels gave Hull and McDowell one rule when doing this – to only use vocals and sounds Hank could make by himself in the woods. So there are no instruments used (other than some subtle additions here and there according to the special features), but the pair manage to create a fantastic soundscape. It plays on the idea that when you’re by yourself for a long time you get songs stuck in your head and not necessarily good ones, and not necessarily with the right lyrics. So the score is largely made up of Dano and Radcliffe themselves singing nonsense songs about the situation they’re in or variations of Cotton Eye Joe and the Jurassic Park theme. Like the premise of the film, it sounds silly, but works remarkably well. Some of the music cues are incredibly emotive and add to the film’s unique style.
It’s a bizarre, but wonderful film. Funny, touching and surreal, it’s like nothing else. It may not be perfect – I wasn’t totally convinced by the finale and, as a whole, the film could have been a little less talk-heavy. Nevertheless, it’s an incredibly unique and fulfilling film that everyone should experience. Don’t let the premise scare you off.
Swiss Army Man is out today on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Lionsgate UK. I saw the Blu-Ray version, which looks and sounds fantastic – crisp, colourful and clear.
There are plenty of special features too. These include:
– Deleted Scenes
– Q&A with Filmmakers
– Swiss Army Man: Behind the Scenes
– “Making of Manny” Featurette
– Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Daniel Kwan, Writer/Director Daniel Scheinert, Production Designer Jason Kisvarday and Sound Mixer/Fartist Brent Kiser
It’s a great selection, with the commentary and lengthy Q&A in particular providing a great insight into the production process. As you’d imagine from the filmmakers, there’s a lot of humour in their accounts too, so the features make for an enjoyable watch as well as an enlightening one. The two behind the scenes featurettes are short, so less in-depth, but still welcome additions and worth a watch.