Well. This is a strange, wonderful beast of a movie.
There’s a lot about, “Swiss Army Man” that just should not work. The core concept, a marooned man finding the farting, robust corpse of another man, using it as a tool to survive in various environments on his way back home…I mean, that sounds like the kind of shit a person comes up with while high AND dehydrated at Coachella. And it if was a bad movie, it would be the equivalent of an overlong, “Saturday Night Live” sketch, with loads of bad taste, celebrity cameos and glossy imagery being tossed at the viewer with the grace of a baby rejecting a meal. But somehow, Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, respectively) have managed to embue such an outlandish concept and make it believable, heartfelt, tragic and smart. Not just through an impressive array of special effects, art direction and cinematography, but also through actor pathos. This movie confronts life, regret and even social awkwardness through an intimate and inventive approach. Best of all? It’s funny as fuck.
Paul Dano is just an ordinary, lost man, about to commit suicide when the corpse of Daniel Radcliffe washes up offshore, farting. Paul’s character is hopeless, expecting more from his oncoming death than just the corpse of a man, but he observes the corpse floating in the water, propelled by farts. He puts two and two together, and…well, so goes the rest of the story. From here, the story goes from a kooky and outrageous high concept into a very introspective story centering on Dano’s character. Using Daniel Radcliffe as the corpse, the movie explores one man’s views (or perhaps two people’s views) on life and death, regret and yearning, love and loss, and it doesn’t give the main character any easy outs while doing so. For example, one motivating factor for the character’s survival is shown to be a woman, and Dano’s character recreates and roleplays their love for this woman, showing the talking corpse (no, really, Radcliffe’s corpse talks…or is he?) what it means to love. But it slowly unravels as the main character is shown to not exactly be a noble person. I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a reason why Dano’s character is so…strange, but also human.
It’s that humanity that gives the movie layers of resonance and humor. The light moments are tinged with bitterness and visceral fear as a dead person is carried from beginning to end, like a reminder of the end all of us share. Yes, it’s funny to see Dano use Radcliffe as a projectile launcher, shooting arrows, rocks and other things to allow Dano to hike, break things apart and kill animals for food, but it’s also disturbing in that in just about every moment of the film, Dano is close to being that very same corpse himself. And yes, it’s sad that Dano is a sad and lonely person who begins treating Radcliffe like his very own Wilson, but it’s also funny as they begin to have conversations about manners, love, sex and death. There’s a critical speech made by Radcliffe’s corpse (again, the movie plays with perceptions in a lot of ways) about what life is, touching upon about what it means to be a person in civilization, and how one has to compromise themselves and how friends/lovers hide things from you, sending them and Dano’s character spiraling into despair about whether they’re a good person or just a, “weirdo”. It’s sad and honest, like something out of, “Flowers for Algernon”, a mournful confession of someone who just wants to be treated as a person, to experience the good things in life, torn apart by the fear of never living up to them…and then he farts.
There’s just so much to like and love about this movie. I like how the movie blurs the lines between the inner world of the main character and the world around them. I love how Paul Dano skillfully evokes regret and hope, sometimes all at once (seriously, this guy has acting chops). I love how the relationship between Dano and the corpse blends with the former’s yearning for a woman he saw before getting marooned from civilization, leading to an honest-to-goodness queer relationship (tinged with necrophilia) that may also be a sign of protagonist’s delusion and desperation. I adore the movie’s brashness, how it turns notions of manners on its head, not unlike how movies like, “The Lobster” and even TV shows like, “The Adams Family” and, “The Oblongs” do it. I love how the corpse’s robustness and usefulness is used as an extension of the main character strengths and weaknesses, and how that becomes a struggle in itself, due to critical moments where Dano has to decide if the corpse is a person to be respected or simply an object to be used, with neither answer being an all the way, “good” one (and just wait until you get to the ending).
Just…go see this. PLEASE go see it. I can’t do this justice, all I can say is that it is a multi-layered movie that treats its audience with respect while being unafraid of going to uncomfortable places. The audience I saw this with laughed in the way one can only laugh when confronted with something so brazen, gross and crude, but this movie embraces that crudeness. A lot of artists yearn to be frank, ugly, entertaining and smart all at once, and that’s a tough line to walk, one that requires precision but also daring, inventiveness but also an understanding of dramatic/comedic structure, human psychology and ideas. “Swiss Army Man” is the movie that shows that one CAN be crude and pretty damn profound all at once, and I hope the Daniels have more in store for them.
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