Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Review: Swiss Army Man

by Cait Cannon
My love for A24 knows no limits. Not even a dead, farting corpse could keep me away from the theater...if anything it drew me to it. I’m talking, of course, about the summer’s weirdest breakout film: Swiss Army Man.

Produced by Miranda Bailey and Amanda Marshall, this first feature from directing pair Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (who call themselves DANIELS) appeared as though it was going to be weird for weird’s sake and nothing more. Oddly enough, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Dressed in a weird puppet shell of flatulence, bodily fluids, and potentially sophomoric humor, Swiss Army Man cuts through life’s bullshit by adding layers and layers of, well...other shit...to get to universal felt truths of loneliness, fear and death.
The movie opens with what I’m sure everyone who has seen the trailer or heard of this whacky buddy movie is more than familiar. Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on a small island. Alone, bored, and hopeless, he is humming to himself as he places a poorly constructed noose around his neck. Seconds before what we assume would be the end of his life, a very dead Daniel Radcliffe washes ashore his lonely isle. Hank, desperate for human contact, settles for his sandy, gassy prize and learns to harness the powers of Daniel Radcliffe’s (later named Manny) decomposing body to his advantage—for anything from a machine gun to a grappling hook to, later, a dear friend. Unlike what you’d get from the trailer, Dano’s character hasn’t totally lost his shit. He gets that Manny is a dead guy on the beach, but when you’re as lonely as he is (and seemed to have been far before he was stranded on an island) anything with even a history of a pulse seems like a viable candidate for friendship.

It’s important to mention that if your ideal movie is one based in realism, makes any sort of sense, or doesn’t play with the fourth wall and is meta as fuck, you should avoid this one deliberately and aggressively. From a logic perspective, the story makes very little sense. We don’t know why Hank is stranded, we don’t know where he and Manny ended up or how (beyond Manny’s jet ski force farts) and we don’t know for how long they’re in the wilderness. And I promise, it zero matters. The pieces of the plot, especially the goofier ones, are just there to set up a series of lenses by which we can examine things that inherently make us as a society extremely uncomfortable. Intimacy, death, sex, regret...all of the sad parts of being a self aware being are perfectly captured, and paint a story as gross as it is touching and relatable.
As Hank and Manny get closer in their (sort of romantic) friendship, they both become more and more alive—literally in the case of the latter and metaphorically in the former. Manny is thirsty for information about normal human society; he asks questions like why do we feel embarrassment? Why can’t we say what’s on our minds at all times? How can two people fall in love and what does that ultimately mean? Hank (representing the normal[ish] man) struggles to find simple solutions to these anything but basic questions. While Manny’s confusion is laugh-worthy, it also begins to paint a sad picture of how people like you or I function in society. Full of fear and insecurity.

The movie reminded me a lot of Bo Burnham’s recent Netflix special, Make Happy, in that it uses pretty sad real life conventions to make over the top, surrealist flavored jokes. The two are both overly produced...but for a purpose. They use these elements of production to comment on the silliness of their existence. It’s insane that a movie about a farting corpse exists. And that’s kind of the point. Nothing really matters after all. Swiss Army Man highlights the lengths we go to achieve an arbitrary sense of success and happiness that end up being rooted in self-imposed standards that end up making us miserable. The genius of the film is that it is very aware of its construction. Not only do the characters create scenes of real life and pop culture to bring Manny up to speed—the two are also the main composers of the score. Instead of music that invisibly drives the plot, Hank and Manny are the ones singing the musical numbers before the score picks them up, even going so far as to match the characters inner thoughts lyrically. They create scenes together that replicate real life, in a story within a movie created to teach a dead man about real life. It’s fucking bananas.
I appreciate so much the lengths this film went to relate to the contemporary person. Instead of demonizing social media or talking about—dare I say it—millennials, it uses those elements of modern life as micro details that emphasize the general malaise of today. And any other point in time. It could have just as easily been about two guys getting to know one another and surviving some sort of peril together...like literally every single movie made ever… but instead it layers all of these comedic and surreal elements to create a bit of cinema that is so real, so relatable, and so touching, it really takes you by surprise.

As I walked into the theater with my friend, I didn’t expect to get my heart strings plucked like a lute at a first rate renaissance faire...I planned on maybe blowing an afternoon on some weirdo summer indie flick with little to no return of investment. But it ended up blowing my mind instead. Never once did I check my watch hoping the story was close to an end—even when the story took its inevitable sad turn. It was surprising, smart, and funny. I laughed. I cried a little. I cannot recommend this movie enough...as weird as the packaging is, trust it. For everyone craving an original hit this summer, Swiss Army Man is it.

21 comments:

  1. A24 is killing it. Anytime I see something interesting pop up there's a good chance A24 is putting it out. They have my top two Horror Films of the year so far - (The Witch and Blackcoat's Daughter). Looking forward to Swiss Army Man!

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  2. Great review of a great movie. I really hope more people will get out and see this. The more I've thought about this movie the more it has made me realize that it's an absolutely perfect representation of Mary Schmich's famous 1997 "Wear Sunscreen" essay. In particular the lines "Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don't be afraid of it, or what other people think of it. It's the greatest instrument you'll ever own."

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    1. I'll check it out, thanks for the reading recommend!!

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  3. I liked the movie. The farting bothered me. Farting is gross and should be done alone. If this movie encourages people to fart in front of each other as an act of solidarity, then that is a bad thing. Again, I liked the movie. I get that there is a lot going on besides the farting. I just don't like farting. I don't find it funny. Great review btw, Cait.

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    1. "I just don't like farting. I don't find it funny."
      - Adam Riske, F This Movie

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    2. Have to respectfully disagree with you, Adam. Farting is the best.

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    3. How'd you feel about the BFG farting? I was not a fan. Good movie, bad farting.

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    4. BFG is a good movie! I could deal with the farts in that one because they're PGFarts not R-Farts.

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    5. Yikes. Now I don't think I want to find out the difference.

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    6. Yikes. Now I don't think I want to find out the difference.

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    7. Big Friendly Gas Giant? Zabriskie out.

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  4. Solid review. However I'd like to know your thoughts on the ending. In my opinion, it was the film's biggest flaw. It's a bit of a rocky landing to say the least.

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    1. Hm, I think the ending was kind of beautiful. It's sad in part because we as the viewer definitely would fit into the real world side of things—like Hank would be a freak to us and nothing else. It puts us in a weird position because for the whole movie we invest ourselves in this seemingly beautiful/highly emotional relationship founded on openness and vulnerability and are woken up to "Hey I definitely wouldn't buy that in my real life I were presented with it."

      I think the ending needed to happen because otherwise the movie would be too self congratulating. It wouldn't have been as strong had it ended in a totally feel good way. Like the secret to living happily every after is hallucinating a dead man on the woods or something...like at the end of the movie the viewer needs to go home. I think it worked to round out the absurdity of everything that happened prior.

      Also shout out to (my future husband) Shane Carruth's cameo.

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    2. I agree the ending was a flaw. I think it did end in a feel good way because now people will believe him. It's like the ship showing up at the end of the Goonies for all the parents to see.

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    3. SPOILERS

      Interesting. Yeah for me, the ending didn't work because there's so much confusion around what actually happened. Some are saying that it was all in Hank's mind and that he was a crazy dude living in the woods all this time, others are saying what happened on screen actually happened, and others are saying that the entire movie was a vision right before Hank commits suicide (the song he sings while in the noose is the same on Manny sings at the end). So which one is it? An ambiguous ending and one that is ultimately up to the viewer feels like a cop out, especially for a movie willing to offend, alienate, and reject its audience.

      I'm totally okay with absurd movies with absurd endings. However, when the movie introduces reality and tries to say something, then it invites interpretation and rationalization.

      I guess my biggest problem with the movie is the all too quick cut between the woods and the beach (which we saw at the beginning of the film). Suddenly everyone is transplanted from one place to another. For this reason alone, I would argue that the entire film is a delusion.

      But that's just my cynical, nihilistic interpretation.

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    4. I like the ending. It reminded me of SPOILER Taxi Driver in a way where you realize you can't trust anything the protagonist has done for the previous 90 minutes.

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    5. I totally agree. And I liked it too (when I saw it through my interpretation). However, there are a lot of people claiming that what you saw was what actually happened and that you should trust the protagonist...which is kind of fucked up given the fact that he was pretty much stalking Sarah.

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    6. Damn, you just spoiled Taxi Driver... I thought you SHOULD trust the insane man with a big Mohawk and even bigger gun :)

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    7. I think the Dad's expression tells you a lot about the ending. I really loved this movie that I saw it twice. A lot of the themes are more clear on a second viewing when you know what kind of movie you're watching. As I was watching it the first time, I wasn't sure if it was just going to be a pure fantasy. Maybe this is a world where farting corpses are just everyday things?
      Also, great review!

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  5. Alright, Cait. You've won me over, hard. I'm always skeptical of new Fthismovie contributors, and have been of you since you started, just like all of them. But this is a wonderful, insightful review of a movie that I saw very similar things in as you did. Out of the regular team, you pick some of the most interesting and difficult movies to discuss, and then proceed to do them justice. So, thank you, and here's looking forward to more of your pieces!

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    1. I've really enjoyed Cait's reviews as well. It is nice to have the fthismovie gang growing, especially when the newcomers have the same obvious love for movies, and can articulate their thoughts in a fun-to-read fashion.

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