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Swiss Army Man – Movie Review: “a friendship based on farts is the strongest of all”

25 September, 2016 — by Ben Rabinovich0

Swiss Army Man is a ridiculously weird and uneven film about friendship, love and farting corpses that’s at its best when it embraces its insanity. 

Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe sit on a hill from Swiss Army Man

Surprisingly, only once does a character in Swiss Army Man, the feature debut of music video directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, say, “What the fuck?!”

What’s less surprising is that, as a viewer, that statement crashes into your head every 10 seconds given the film’s bat-shit crazy plot. I will try to explain. Paul Dano plays Hank, an archetypal Paul Dano character – a lonely, quiet weirdo – who is stranded alone on an island and is about to hang himself. Just as he is about to take the final step, he notices a body on the beach, suggesting John Donne really was correct, No man is an island.

Delirious at the sight of company, he investigates further. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe), whose sole contribution to the conversation is passing wind. Distraught and repulsed, Hank returns to his moribund activity. Just as he is again about to shuffle off this mortal coil, the corpse’s farting suddenly intensifies to become a continuous purr, akin to a jet-ski engine. Inspired by God knows what, Hank picks up on this and we’re presented with a glorious shot of him riding Daniel Radcliffe’s bare-bottomed, turbo-farting corpse into the sea, thus going some way in explaining the film’s title.

A bearded Paul Dano sits on a beach from Swiss Army Man

It really is a mad, mad film. Like Cast Away on LSD and a Wilson with a raging erection. Dano brings a certain frenetic, feral energy to this Hank’s castaway. He’s twitchy, hums to himself and chases racoons for dinner. Hank is so desperate for human contact that he starts dragging the corpse around with him, until somehow, the corpse starts talking, moving and calling himself “Manny”.

Following his ridiculous, mysterious ‘Weekend at Bernies style’ animation, the film becomes a Socratic dialogue with farts, where Hank explains to Manny – who can’t remember any life experiences – everything from the difference between various emotions to why masturbating is okay, but not too much.

However, this goes on for far too long and listening to Manny ask innocent questions such as, “Why do people throw things away?” so the film can make a point about general human profligacy becomes irritating and it’s frustrating that such a high-concept film devotes so much time to such trite ideas.

Paul Dano sits behind Daniel Radcliffe in Swiss Army Man

Swiss Army Man is at its brightest and strongest when it stops trying so hard to make a point and just ramps up the insanity. Watching Manny’s erection act like a compass that guides the stranded duo towards rescue, fall in love with a girl (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) on Hank’s phone and then have Hank dress up as said girl and build a whole meet-cute set-up – like a gangly Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche New York – is as odd and hilarious as it sounds. 

This flirtation with the meta isn’t limited to plot. When Hank and Manny’s relationship goes through particularly intense, euphoric phases, which unsurprisingly happens quite frequently, the film’s plotted insanity infects its technical aspects. What starts out as the diegetic sound – the duo gently humming and singing about an activity they are performing such as making popcorn – slowly transforms into the exultant non-diegetic as they get more and more excitable. Their lyrics being layered and repeated over each other with instruments added in, crescendoing as the activity becomes more and more ecstatic.

When it abandons the subtlety, Swiss Army Man further excels. Manny’s ability to chop wood and make fire with his farts all further elucidates the film’s title, and it doesn’t shy away from stressing that his most useful, life-saving tool, desperately needed by Hank, is friendship. That John Donne reference is starting to look less like a throwaway reference and more like the essence of the film.

Paul Dano wearing a mop stands next to a smiling Daniel Radcliffe from Swiss Army Man

Swiss Army Man is uneven and loses a bit of steam towards the end of its 90-plus minute journey, but for every frustrating point there are one or two insane and off-beat scenes that make it worthwhile. Don’t think of it as one step forward, two steps back but rather Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe’s corpse getting drunk and doing the two-step around a fire with friends they made out of sticks. 3/5

Check out more of the latest cinema releases in our new movie reviews section, including the execrable Gangsters, Gamblers and Geezers.

Swiss Army Man

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