SWISS ARMY MAN (Movie Review)

**** out of ****
Rated R 
(for strong language and sexual material)
Released: July 1, 2016
Runtime: 97 minutes
Director: Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert (credited as “Daniels”)
Starring: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Ranked #5 on My Top 10 List For 2016

There’s nothing remotely conventional about Swiss Army Man, the dark comedy that was infamously dubbed “The Farting Corpse Movie” at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, and for good reason: Daniel Radcliffe plays a farting corpse.

The premiere screening polarized the Park City audience, leading to buzzed-about walkouts. Judging by the film’s current 64% Rotten Tomatoes average, critics are mostly split as well. Swiss Army Man is not a movie you can be indifferent about. Most people I know – those who go to the movies for fun or cathartic escapism, not artistic ambition (which is totally fine) – will be decidedly (and quickly) turned off by this impossible-to-categorize feature film debut from writers/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (credited here simply as “Daniels”).

But to me, Swiss Army Man is a little indie movie masterpiece.

It also boasts the best performance of Paul Dano’s career, and probably Radcliffe’s too.

Despite appearing to actively alienate its viewers at every turn, Swiss Army Man is not provocative for provocation’s sake. It’s sincere and heartfelt. Miraculously, by movie’s end, it’s the one time you’ll ever hear someone “claim a fart” with the signature phrase “That was me. I did it.” and have it carry actual weight, meaning, and pathos.

Stranded on a small deserted island in the middle of the ocean, Hank (Paul Dano) is literally at the end of his rope, trying to hang himself in a small cave. But just before he can complete the deed, Hank notices a body (Radcliffe) washed up on shore. It’s a corpse, so Hank’s attempts to revive it are futile. The only result of his efforts is passage of the body’s pent-up gas, hence the farting. Even as Hank resumes his suicidal endeavor, he can’t do it in peace. That darn corpse just won’t stop farting.

It’s absolutely bizarre, and absolutely hilarious.

What unfolds from there is hard to nutshell, but the studio’s logline is as effective as any: “A hopeless man stranded in the wilderness befriends a dead body and, together, they go on a surreal journey to get home.” Yes, that description said “wilderness”, not “deserted island”, and how the two get from one to the other epitomizes the film’s fearless audacity.

Like a millennial “Waiting For Godot”, Swiss Army Man is cinema of the absurd, but instead of endlessly waiting as Beckett’s two characters do, this duo is doggedly searching.

The adolescent humor – which starts with farts and then graduates to under-garment erections (all from the corpse), and more – exists not for scatological reasons but psychological ones. These base bodily functions specifically serve the purpose of what Radcliffe’s corpse does more broadly: to shock Hank out of his depressed nadir and incite him to crawl out of the existential hole that he’s fallen into (one that’s been dug for him by the tragic unfairness of life).

Given Hank’s precarious mental state, we as viewers can’t trust what we’re seeing, or if it can be taken at face value. Scenes are shot and played to make us wonder what’s real and what’s imagined. Yes, Hank is definitely lost in the wilderness, lugging around a corpse (a plot construct that also works as a metaphor), but the legitimacy of what we see is always up for grabs – and that makes the entire experience all the more compelling.

Paul Dano has been around for a long time, playing variations on a troubled type, from Little Miss Sunshine to There Will Be Blood, and only recently evolving past those theatrical affectations to more wide-ranging work like his portrayal of a young Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy. But here, in a role that (on the surface) seems suited for Dano to fall back into his early-career wheelhouse, Dano is a revelation.

Hank is a guy who has completely lost it, and yet never for a single moment does Dano play up the crazy. His performance is perfectly calibrated and internalized (even with its occasional emotional outbursts), defined by tender nuances and heartbreaking desperation. It’s also surprisingly naturalistic for a character who’s on the brink. Dano delivers a feature-length psychotic breakdown, but an endearing one.

This is also a landmark turn for Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe, who expresses great depths through a minimalist approach. The corpse, ultimately, is a cypher for Hank’s psychosis (a “Swiss Army Man” for every one of Hank’s needs and angsts), but Radcliffe elevates the part far beyond a psychosomatic projection (which, honestly, would’ve been enough) to a character that is distinct in its own right, with its own layers, its own arc, and its own surprises. Dano and Radcliffe work so powerfully together that, as the journey unfolds, we begin to rightfully wonder which one of the two is truly the rotting corpse.

Yes, the premise may be juvenile, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also an inspired (even brilliant) conceit. The Daniels are serious, intentional and, most importantly, thoughtful about every absurdity they incorporate (which also includes a recurring motif that calls back to one of the all time classic blockbusters; a specific choice that likely goes deeper than the initial nostalgia it evokes). These guys don’t simply give us stuff we’ve never seen before; they conjure up visuals, actions, and ideas that we’ve likely never even imagined or dreamed.

This kind of bold, daring vision is so singular that, while shooting, crew members must’ve been wondering what on earth it was that they were even making, possibly asking each other in skeptical whispers, “Do these guys even know what they’re doing?” It’s the kind of question that the directors could’ve only answered with an unsatisfactory “just trust us,” but it’s a trust that’s fully deserved — and earned.

This is a movie that should not work, especially this well, but it does. That’s the hallmark of great directing. Swiss Army Man is outlandish, it’s gross, and it’s crass, but it’s equally poetic and, even in its own way, beautiful. By the film’s climax, I was not only in its narrative grip but in its emotional heart as well.

The ending is as gutsy and challenging as everything that came before it but, by that point, regardless of whether or not you accept it, the Daniels have earned the right to do whatever the hell they want. Thankfully, though, it’s not a flippant cop-out, nor does it fizzle into some pointless vapor. The ending works — completing a cinematic high-wire stunt that was defiantly maintained all the way through — providing a narrative, thematic, and emotional fulfillment to a very surreal story that these two filmmakers asked us to take a huge gamble on.

Not the sophomoric idiocy the concept would suggest, Swiss Army Man is (given its premise) more mesmerizing than I could’ve thought possible. Its magical realism wrestles with loneliness and loss, but then hopes for resurrection.

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