SWISS ARMY MAN
(2016, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert)
[Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment and © 2016 Ironworks Productions, LLC]
[4 out of 5 stars]
If you thought the relationship between Tom Hanks and the volleyball in CASTAWAY was weird but strangely heartwarming then prepare yourself for SWISS ARMY MAN. It takes this to a whole new level.
Expecting to be hit with a battering of fart jokes right off the bat, I was taken aback by its deliberately dour opening scene showing Hank (Paul Dano) with a noose around his neck. The opening sequence feels like an ending. This only lasts briefly as the camera cuts to a a dead body (played by Daniel Radcliffe who proves himself here as a gifted physical comedian) washed up ashore.
When Hank realises that the corpse is full of gas, he rides him like a jetski to the nearest land. The score rises and Daniel Radcliffe’s corpse (later named as Manny) surfs across the ocean with his mouth agape and Hank riding triumphantly on his back as the title appears on-screen. It’s a complete reversal of tone and it’s probably at this point where some audience members are turned off by it - half of the audience at its Sundance premiere reportedly walked out.
But for those who do decide to stay, it is sure to reward with a moving story about love, life and loneliness. Yes, the fart-and-boner jokes are relentless but it’s incredible how they turned a premise like this into a story with surprising sincerity and insight.
The Daniels (as the directors have come to be known) have a music video background and it's evident in their debut feature-length film. They sustain a barrage of tonal shifts by disturbing scenes with impressionistic images showing thoughts and memories that suddenly pop into Hank’s or Manny’s minds. This is accompanied by an amusing acapella score that fuses diegetic gibberish into non-diegetic music. Sound and images are put together like they were chucked into a blender and it works. These techniques are used to depict the messy inner workings of Hank’s mind as it dips in and out of reality. He’s slowly losing his mind, probably from starvation or isolation. Or he probably already lost touch with reality while he was in the real world, details of which I will not reveal here.
When Manny starts talking, he knows nothing about life because all his memories are wiped clean and Hank has to explain to him how the world works. Even though this device can come across as a little contrived it does provide the most moving scenes in the film as the two converse about the meaning of life and why people do the things we do.
These conversations examine etiquette and the societal pressure we put on ourselves for the sake of normality. “You can’t just say anything that pops into your head. That’s bad talking”, Hank tells Manny. “You can’t fart in front of other people, you have to hold them in”, Hank advises Manny. “That’s sad”, Manny replies. The talking corpse is the voice to our fundamental corporeal desires (why can’t we just fart anytime we want) and Hank is the lonely weirdo whose weirdness society rejects, with damaging effects to his happiness and self-worth.
SWISS ARMY MAN embraces weirdness in all forms by championing the quiet weirdos of the world and telling their story with equal weirdness, farts and all.