Swiss Army Man and all the images you see in this review are owned by A24
Directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
From the guys who brought us Dogboarding and the Turn Down for What music video, we now have the feature film debut of the duo simply known as DANIELS (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert). A lot of great filmmakers started out with shorts and music videos before becoming household names, just look at Spike Jones, David Fincher, and Michel Gondry. True, that list also includes Michael Bay, but you can’t peg a winner EVERY time, and it’s not like he’s never made ANY good movies! Can these green filmmakers prove themselves to be the next big thing with their movie about a farting Daniel Radcliffe corpse? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins with Hank (Paul Dano) who’s been stuck on a very small island for some time and is ready to kill himself when something washes up on the shore. It’s not Wilson from Castaway, but instead is a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe) who seems to have the uncanny ability to fart continuously and forcefully enough for Hank to ride his ass back to civilization! Well sort of. He hops aboard the Daniel Radcliffe express and washes up on a new shore, but there’s a forest between him and presumably other people, so he starts hiking his ass through the woods carrying the dead body with him in case he needs anything else from it. At one point though, it’s clear that this is more than a magical farting corpse, but is instead a LIVING magical farting corpse who actually has all sorts of wacky powers that are discovered along the way. Hank gives him the name Manny and they quickly become friends because… well there isn’t anyone else around, now is there? Manny by the way has a whole lot of questions about what it’s like to be human and about life itself, so Hank has to keep answering these annoying and probing inquires while he uses the body to get whatever he needs to survive. Is the body actually alive which would mean Hank isn’t as crazy as he thinks he is? What is the story behind Manny in the first place and are there memories to be uncovered? Were the filmmakers dared to see how many fart jokes they can put in a movie and STILL get it to be an indie darling?
I liked this movie just fine, but I wasn’t particularly enthralled by it. It’s got great acting in it from Paul Dano and Danielle Radcliffe, both of whom need to carry this all by themselves, and the situations they find themselves in are cleverly realized and very well shot. Where this movie begins to falter though is when it feels the need to be about something. So much of this movie is about unpacking the toxic self-loathing that has stunted the growth (or even ruined the lives) of so many this generation, and in all honesty I kinda got bored with that pretty quickly; hoping instead that they’d throw in a bit more humor or some interesting set pieces rather than drone on and on. It’s not even like they do it poorly, it just feels like something we’ve seen many times already from Indie films, as if it’s a requirement or something. Summer blockbusters have to have inter-movie continuity coupled with massive scale destruction, and Indie films have to be super twee and navel gazing. Circle of life I guess.
So what is it about the message of this movie that ends up dragging down the whole experience? Well it’s a huge cliché for one. When Daniel Radcliffe wakes up from being dead, he not only has amnesia about who HE is, but about what humanity is and pretty much everything that goes with it. From this point, he keeps asking probing and invasive questions of Hank for the purposes of learning about humanity and life which in turn causes Hank to reflect on his own decisions and firmly held beliefs. So wait a minute… you’re telling me that an outside perspective of the human condition causes the main character to learn that these societal pressures we all live by are total bullshit only end up keeping people from doing things that make them happy? Well shoot! Did anyone tell Johnny Five, The Terminator, Leeloo, The Iron Giant, and Bender!? I’m sure THEY’D get a kick out of this!! Again, it’s not bad… it’s just not that interesting; a complaint of course that’s probably not going to apply to everyone and to its credit it does tie everything together, but the times where the movie stops dead to give Manny another humanity lesson just left me hoping that we could move on to the next super power the corpse gets or the next challenge that Hank has to face. Now that I think about it, there is one aspect about the self-improvement moral that I did like, and that’s how the filmmakers always had Hank fail (whether through his own incompetence or through sheer bad luck) whenever he started to close himself off to Manny. Anytime he grew distant or didn’t want to talk about something, things would go wrong until he finally opened up which usually led to Manny getting another power. Okay, it’s kinda silly to expect Hank to stop in the middle of crossing a precarious set of pipes just to answer Manny’s question (his refusal to do so by the way nearly gets him killed), but we’re already dealing with a guy dragging around a corpse that is slowly coming back to life and can propel himself indefinitely through his super powered farts. Magical realism is the name of the game here.
That’s really where the movie works the best. Whenever it’s in the moment of these two trying to survive the wilderness through whatever convoluted logic allows Manny to be the multi-tooled badass that he is, the movie is firing on all cylinders. Hell, even when it slows down a bit and Hank is trying to help Manny feel better about himself or to see if there are any memories to be jogged, it’s still pretty engaging. It’s just that those scenes slow things down a bit too much once they’re done pretending their at a movie theater or are having a house party to then talk about being a man, having shame about your body, and stuff that IS important, but only goes so far in the script and never differentiates itself from other movies that have covered that territory. It honestly feels like a crutch more than anything else. If they had something unique to say, then I wouldn’t be bothered by it so much, but it feels like they added it in here as filler in between the parts where they take full advantage of the premise.
This also kind of leads into the ending as well which I WILL give credit to the filmmakers for not coping out on (my fear was that Hank was gonna fall asleep and then just wake up in a hospital or something with no one having even seen the dead body) but what they do end up doing is kinda… disheartening I guess? I won’t get too much into it, but considering how much the movie wanted us to invest in Hank becoming a better person through his conversations with it ends on a note that doesn’t bring satisfaction to that character’s arc. I guess the implication of the ending is that even if your completely aware of how much bullshit society puts on us, there’s ultimately nothing (or very little) that we can do about it. If so, well… good for the filmmakers I guess. You ended your movie leaving the audience feeling disappointed. Oh no wait! There’s a last minute gag to give us hope… except not really. Everything that was going wrong at the end is STILL gonna go wrong five minutes after the movie cuts off. I would liken it to The Dreamers as far as endings, but that one worked SO much better for me than the one here; mainly because the ride we were going on that had to come to an abrupt end was a lot more fun (by that I mean hedonistic) and so it made more sense that it ended up that way and it was just a more enjoyable ride to go on. Not that this example I’m about to give ACTUALLY happens in either movie (or maybe it DOES!?), if you’re gonna get busted by the cops no matter what, you might as well have a lot of fun doing whatever you want rather than read self-help books. Maybe the ending of this movie isn’t supposed to be as much of a downer as I interpreted it as, or maybe it is and will make the movie better for a lot of people because of it. I just didn’t care for it myself.
I’ve been pretty down on this for the most part, so let me reiterate what works. Both Paul Dan and Daniel Radcliffe do a fantastic job carrying this movie through its entire running time and it’s made even better by the really great cinematography and locations they have here. There’s also a lot of cool props that PROBABLY couldn’t have been made by one dude and his dead pal, but I was more than willing to accept it (magical realism once again). The effects are solid in this as well which are used sparingly but effectively whenever Manny uses one of his powers (there’s a fight scene that’s fucking amazing) and they keep coming up with clever ones to give him. The ending is the only part that lost me as there really is a lot of great material here with these two playing off of each other and with Radcliffe in particular playing a role that couldn’t have been easy to pull off. Seriously, this guy is going to get an Oscar at some point and he’ll ABSOLUTELY deserve it when he does.
There’s kind of an assumption that movies in the indie scene are usually better because of the uncompromised vision that allows these filmmakers to do what’s right for their story rather than what the studio demands. I don’t particularly agree with that as Indie films can fall into similar traps that the bloated blockbusters can; namely that they can be just as insincere as whatever superhero movie is currently making money hand over fist at the theaters. I wouldn’t say this movie is insincere in what it’s doing, but it certainly didn’t come across as quiet as smart and heartfelt as it clearly thinks it is, so the movie ends up feeling a tad cold (like a corpse perhaps? He he he ) and lacked a bit of emotional resonance. Compare that with something like The Purge: Election Year which similarly has something it wants to say, but I’d argue that they get their message across WAY better than this movie because of the sheer relentlessness with which they convey that message and the grotesque package it’s wrapped in. This one on the other hand feels a bit stale in points as it tries to do what so many indie films have done before it, but it also has a level of creativity in its concept and it’s scene by scene story progress that it manages to be one of the most interesting movies of the year despite it not being as good as it should have been. Then again, I’m the guy who though Victor Frankenstein was one of the best movies of last year and I’ll probably watch that again before I rewatch this one, so what the hell do I know?
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