Review: Swiss Army Man

Arthouse cadaver comedy Swiss Army Man an unexpected delight, says

swiss army man

Image: flickr

★★★★☆
Director: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Paul Dano, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Length: 1hr 37m
Rating: 15

Within five minutes of Swiss Army Man opening, I am watching the corpse of household name and beloved figure of family cinema Daniel Radcliffe be ridden like a jetski, powered by how ferociously flatulent he is. This ultimately sets the tone for the next ninety-odd minutes of my life. If you haven’t gathered from the press coverage surrounding this film in months prior, it is all a little odd. It follows Hank (Paul Dano), who has inexplicably ended up stranded on a desert island for long enough to grow a pretty impressive beard, but apparently not long enough for his clothes to get particularly dirty. Just as he has given up any hope of rescue and stands with a noose around his neck, ready to take his own life, Manny (that’s Dan Rad) washes up on the beach. From there things escalate rather quickly.

It’s a genre bending arthouse-cum-comedy. Often so-termed art films, built out of stunning cinematography, warped soundtracks, and extravagant plotlines, enthralling as they may be, are not particularly funny. Within the past decade alone, we can turn to offerings such as Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and Joanthan Glazer’s Under the Skin, undeniable works of beauty, statements about the human condition neatly packaged into just under two hours of onscreen entertainment, but largely lacking in any form of comic relief. Swiss Army Man is entirely different, leaning on humour throughout – and not even more the more sophisticated brand of surrealist incongruity comedy like that seen in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster. Instead, the jokes are about rather more lowbrow matters. Manny the corpse possesses magical powers, one of which being that when his penis becomes erect it can be used as a compass to point him and Hank in the right direction home. Cue weakly suppressed chuckles throughout the movie theatre.

And this merge of high and low culture, the masterfully composed coral soundtrack, the painterly composition of each shot, works immensely well. Hence the title of Swiss Army Man, Manny’s magical form can be used in myriad different practical ways which aid Hank’s survival. The joke is that Hank and Manny are engaging in extreme parodies of behaviours which are prohibited in polite society. It’s film which encourages the socially unacceptable, revels in the taboo. The lesser functions of the body become practical rather than an embarrassment, and thus the film questions why things which are normal for people to experience on a daily basis are considered unacceptable and shameful.  It’s dressed up in ridiculous, juvenile banter, but it’s an incredibly effective way of getting the message across.

It’s not only a film encouraging a break away from the norm – it’s also a film about learning how to love. Hank has become so isolated that despite being missing for a number of weeks, no one appears to have noticed. He’s completely lost touch with wider society, with other human beings. He rides the bus in isolation, everyday dreaming of striking up conversation with the same beautiful passing stranger, unable to bring himself to do so. He doesn’t love the girl whose candid photo he has, somewhat unsettlingly, set as his phone wallpaper – it’s merely infatuation. But he does grow to love Manny. It takes the dead man who has forgotten everything, who cannot understand the world around him any longer, in order for Hank to feel alive and to love once more.

Radcliffe, it should be noted, is phenomenal. As an actor, he finally appears to be shaking the chains of Harry Potter, graduating from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and into the league of genuinely respected artists. He’s unavoidably a man very much reliant on the script he’s given – just take a look at his wooden and stilted performance in the already immensely sub-par The Woman in Black. But given the right material, he thrives: see Kill Your DarlingsHorns, or the recent Imperium. He’s an actor who will most likely improve with age, like a fine wine, or an artisan cheese, hopefully soon to be thought of as Daniel Radcliffe first and foremost, the boy who lived as an afterthought.

In all, it’s a beautiful little film. It’s quirky and funny, a charming wander through the forest into the world Hank and Manny build for themselves. And whether you interpret it all as the fever-dream of a man about to take his life, or far more literally, one thing is for certain. It’s a film which actually stands for something, and that’s becoming quite a rarity these days.

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