How does someone practice self-love? How do they tackle personal insecurities free of the judgment from others? How do they learn to live in a world that seemingly has no place for them? These are the questions on the mind of Swiss Army Man, the survivalist love story from Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (aka “The Daniels”), a duo arguably best known for directing the music video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s smash banger “Turn Down For What.” Despite the film’s absurd premise—a suicidal, depressed man (Paul Dano) discovers a magical farting corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) who provides him with a new lease on life—Swiss Army Man is a fairly conventional “bromance” film. It may promise a certain “What the fuck?” quotient (in fact, that is the last line of the film), but its purportedly divisive qualities, i.e. crude bodily functions, are mostly joke fodder and background noise, masking a familiar, saccharine core. If one accepts loud farts and comical erections as an acceptable springboard to examine self-loathing, they’ll find a touching, albeit thinly sketched, relationship drama about two people dead to the world but alive in their hearts learning to let go of their personal hangups.
However, The Daniels successfully bury this lede by beginning the film as a pure survivalist story. Hank (Dano) initially uses Manny the corpse (Radcliffe) as a “multi-purpose tool”: His flatulence propels him across the ocean, his boner can be used as a compass, he spits up drinkable water at a ridiculous rate. But when Manny starts talking, Hank quickly learns that he’s also a blank slate, someone who doesn’t know who or what he is, let alone the nuances of societal conventions. It’s then that Swiss Army Man mostly shifts away from survivalist antics in favor of something resembling a love story, except the object of desire isn’t really another person but rather oneself. Hank tutors Manny on how to best live in the world, only to discover from Manny’s Socratic questioning that the lessons he tries to impart are a negative product of his own crippling self-doubt. Hank has no faith in himself, so as a result, he has no faith in his own emotions, and Manny’s innocent slack-jawed stare all but throws that in his face. Like all the classic student-teacher relationships, Manny’s childlike naiveté opens Hank up to his own repressed psyche, and what he hides from the world and himself. In many ways, The Daniels turn Swiss Army Man into a referendum on “polite society,” and how its mockery of unconventional habits and strange behavior ends up condemning the marginalized amongst us.
It would be easy and cheap for The Daniels to constantly wink at its premise. Swiss Army Man is a film that’s all but designed for an Adult Swim-esque ironic approach, taking dead aim at sensitive-guy-movie clichés via gross-out humor. Though it flirts with some of that near the end, it’s primarily an earnest, heart-on-your-sleeve film that requires an embrace rather than a handshake. Complete with sing-alongs and heartfelt declarations of love, Swiss Army Man’s most admirable quality is its refusal to succumb to any kind of intellectual distance from its material. The entire film operates on a strange emotional logic that facilitates sincere monologues about masturbation and the beauty of shitting. For better or occasionally worse, it’s a film that doesn’t take half measures.
Part of the fun, and weirdness, of Swiss Army Man is more the journey than the destination, riding the twists and turns like an unstable jet ski even when some are telegraphed from miles away. For example, Hank’s unreliability as a narrator inevitably leads to some minor third-act revelations that are more compelling in theory than in practice, even though the last minutes of the film admirably grasps at the sublime. But there are other surprising elements that absorb focus much more readily, mainly the palpable homoerotic tension between Hank and Manny. While lesser storytellers would have neatly kept that in the subtext, Swiss Army Man frequently threatens to turn into a full-blown same-sex love story between two people who use the other to reach themselves. It’s simultaneously a selfish and selfless relationship, and the line between the two blurs as the film pushes to its conclusion.
Though The Daniels’ storytelling instincts are a little shapeless and their formal chops often amount to showiness for its own sake, Dano and especially Radcliffe sell the hell out of Swiss Army Man. In its very essence, Hank is a Dano-like character, a delicate, thoughtful person with a wealth of sympathy and a slightly dark edge, and by the end of the film, it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else as that character. However, it’s Radcliffe’s selfless performance that pushes The Daniels’ film into great, unexplored territory. The funniest joke in the film is simply every single shot of Radcliffe’s gaunt, half-awake expression. It’s difficult to explain in words how funny it is to watch Harry Potter talk with an idiot savant’s delivery, or even his limp, marionette-like body movements, like how his torso can’t ever stay still or how his head always slumps to the side. By design, Manny is the heart and soul of the film, especially how he adopts and rejects Hank’s fear and loneliness, and Radcliffe dynamically assumes that burden with vigor. Even more so than Dano, Radcliffe intuitively understands Swiss Army Man’s delicate tone and fully embodies it.
While Swiss Army Man certainly features some seen-it-a-million-times Sundance indie sentimentality and the impressive production design work falls on the wrong side of twee, The Daniels’ staunch commitment to their “bit” papers over many of the film’s obvious flaws. It’s one thing to have a fence-swinging premise that will certainly alienate those less inclined to forgive body humor, but it’s another thing entirely not to simply rest on those laurels. The Daniels utilize their premise to explore damaged spirits and fragile egos by throwing them in the deep end of emotional peril. The duo understands that the best way to revitalize someone’s life is for them to stare in the face of death, yet an even better way is for the dead to talk back to them. Swiss Army Man turns and faces the strange, not just to stare into the void, but to scream in its face and grip it with all the love in your heart. In other words, it’s a deathly serious joke.
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