People walked out of the theatre when this film debuted at Sundance, and they walked out of the screening I was at recently as well. And while I would never dream of insulting a film maker this way at a film festival, I can kind of understand why it happened. Swiss Army Man is profoundly uncomfortable. It’s disturbing. It’s gross. It’s also one of the most affecting and unique film-going experiences I’ve had this year, or ever.
In this cross between Castaway and Weekend at Bernie’s, Paul Dano is Hank, a man despairing of hope after living too long on a deserted island. Just as he’s about to give up completely, a ray of sunshine arrives in the form of a farting corpse (Daniel Radcliffe). Eventually named Manny, the corpse helps Hank to not feel so alone or lonely, and becomes even handier as he proves himself a veritable multi-use tool in Hank’s plot to escape the island.
I can’t praise or caution this movie enough. If the desecration of corpses is not for you, I’m sure The BFG is playing somewhere. I wouldn’t have guessed that the desecration of corpses was particularly for me, but I was completely won over by this movie. Written and directed by ‘Daniels’ (as Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan are collectively known), these men are clearly innovative thinkers who are pushing the boundaries not just of movie making but of human decency – and it works. They have used a compelling if shocking situation and made it feel completely relatable. They boil it down to themes of depression, social isolation, family dysfunction, eccentricity and resilience.
Paul Dano is as good as he’s ever been, but Daniel Radcliffe is the true surprise here. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when these two were in negotiations to join the movie; Daniels were known for little else than a bizarre music video (Turn Down For What) yet somehow convinced two smart, bankable stars to take on the most provocative film of the year (and you thought The Lobster safely had the title!). Radcliffe stretches the part of dead body into something that’s both absurd and touching. He’s clearly set on eradicating Harry Potter from our memories by making bold and interesting choices, and this is a definitive step toward a bracing career as a versatile actor.
I also have to say I love what they did with the music. Not just the score, though that was good too. You have to see the movie to know what I’m talking about, but the way this movie uses music really made my heart soar. It really elevated for me what was already a good movie – a smart script paired with excellent acting, topped with some truly beautiful photography.
Sean and Matt will tell you that I’m probably the last person on earth to enjoy scatological humour but I did find myself laughing at this movie, more than I thought I would (although I think I might need to invoke Vanta-black once again, with feeling). But mostly it made me think, which I didn’t expect at all. It made me really think, and sometimes feel sad. It made me think on the possibilities and limitations of imagination, on the nature of self-reflection, and on the merits of choosing a best friend who is dead.
A movie like this doesn’t come along very often. I’m still buzzing with the joy I feel when I know I’ve witnessed something special. I won’t sleep tonight. This is why I go to the movies.