I wonder what has to go through a writer’s mind to come up with “Swiss Army Man:” there would have to be some chasm of depression and isolation, but also a heavy-duty sense of humor and creativity. I can say I have never seen anything like it, and can be almost certain I never will again; and though it is a little rough around the edges, and has a few too many fart jokes, “Swiss Army Man” is the perfect example of the flexibility and endurance of a writer’s imagination.
The directors’ Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s (who are billed as ‘The Dainels’) film starts off on a deserted island, where a depressed man named Hank (Paul Dano) interrupts a suicide attempt to investigate what he thinks is a shipwreck survivor (Daniel Radcliffe) who has now washed up on shore. The man is dead (and somehow incredibly flamboyant). Hank quickly finds out, however, that the corpse is not totally useless, as the body goes, now dragged back out into the ocean, starts fluttering around like a jet ski powered by its gas.
The living man rides the dead man through the waves until they both hit land, and then, realizing that this corpse saved his life, Hank takes him on his back and carries him through the forest in a series of shots reminiscent to Luke and Yoda in “The Empire Strikes Back.” Hank rightly names the being “Manny,” and talks to him like he’s anybody else, except, you know, dead. So for the most part, the conversations are pretty one-sided.
However, as Manny’s physical abilities continue to de-rust, it turns out that talking is another thing he can do, but he has forgotten everything. Manny and Hank’s relationship is that of a child and his father or like Pinocchio and Gepetto as Hank teaches the reincarnated person about love, the real world, and even missed opportunity. These meaning of life courses take up the longest segments of the film; the classrooms being a cave Hank converted to a stage where he uses Manny to act out an important moment that occurred when he was amongst the people.
The title refers to the various ways Hank uses Manny to survive: from the human jet ski, Hank’s resourcefulness evolves to using Manny’s water-filled body as a faucet, his mouth as a gun, his arm as an axe, and his fingers as a match. But Manny serves another, more bountiful purpose; not only is he a friend to Hank, but he allows Hank to see and evaluate his own way of life so he can change it before he turns out dead like Manny. During the scenes in the cave, Manny learns how to live through Hank’s past experiences, and by watching Manny personify them in his own, deceased way, and having to answer questions only someone who didn’t know anything would ask, Hank realizes that maybe he could have been happy.
And in that way, “Swiss Army Man” is substantial. Hank is able to recognize and rekindle his life by standing on the side lines and watching a completely ignorant person work through his past mistakes. Another component to that realization is that Manny asks a lot of questions that pertain to the way our culture is set up; with a lot of rules. And by the end of the movie, we are all left wondering why we have to wear clothes, or why we can’t fart where we please. These are silly examples, but the point is made.
However, not everything in the Daniels’ rambunctious film hits their marks. The majority of the jokes in the first 20 odd minutes of the movie are related to Manny’s helpless flatulent nature (that is, until Hank literally finds a plug); and the possible homosexual connection between the two guys is not very well developed. But maybe by incorporating fart jokes, poop jokes, and masturbation jokes into the entirety of their film, the Daniels want to bring in the totally natural parts of life that people want to keep out of it. But maybe not.
So, if it wasn’t obvious by now, this movie will not resonate with everybody; it is not that kind of story.
There are both good and bad questions to be asked when watching this movie, and though the film answers some of them, there are many that are left unsolved (i.e. how did Hank end up out there for so long, and where is he?). But, if you leave those out, there is a simple deduction to be made about “Swiss Army Man:” you either love it or hate it; the Dainels make sure there is not an in-between.
– by Luke Parker