Swiss Army Man. A film by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. With Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe.
People say this about movies all the time, but in this case I feel fully confident: you’ve never seen anything like Swiss Army Man.
Hank (Paul Dano) has somehow gotten stranded on the proverbial desert island. He has all the problems that such a situation normally entails. He’s also terminally bored. He’s made a decision to take his life, has the noose around his neck, is about to step off the cooler he’s using as a platform, when he notices that a body (Daniel Radcliffe) has washed up on the beach. He’s so excited he almost hangs himself accidentally trying to get to it (his rope breaks, so it never would have worked anyway), but when he gets there, he yells at the body, practically embraces it, before he realizes it’s dead. Help—or at least a companion—has not arrived after all. He’ll have to hang himself all over again. And his rope has broken! What a situation.
Then the corpse farts.
There is a moment early in the relationship between these two Samuel Beckett type characters when Hank realizes he may just be weak from hunger and imagining what he has heard. Corpses don’t fart, do they? He goes back to hang himself again, using a strap he found on the corpse. But while he is doing that the corpse has a profound fit of farting, twitching, and convulsing, and he realizes he can use it for his own purposes. Whether from now on we are strictly in the realm of Hank’s imagination, or whether all this is “really happening,” we take off on a wild ride. Hank realizes—who wouldn’t?—that he can use this farting corpse as a jet ski, and he does exactly that, skimming across the ocean at a terrific fart propelled clip. When he crash lands—nobody farts forever, not even a corpse—he is at a new beach. He discovers incontrovertible signs of human life, including an unopened bag of cheese twists. The rest of the movie is about this pair’s journey toward life and civilization, because the corpse—whose name is Manny—eventually comes to (something resembling) life and begins to talk.
There is a famous Zen Koan that begins at a funeral. The student and teacher are standing beside a corpse in a coffin, and the student says, Alive or dead? “I won’t say alive and I won’t say dead,” the teacher replies. The student presses him, because he really wants an answer. This is, after all, the primary question Zen is trying to face, the Great Matter of Life and Death. The student really wants to know. But the teacher is adamant. “I won’t say.”
Manny, though he comes to life, and though he has obviously been alive—he has a fully grown young man’s body—has some weird kind of amnesia. He knows language, but doesn’t know what anything means. It’s as if he’s starting over. When, at some point, he asks the question, “What is life?” we realize the extent of the problem. That, I would say, is the question this movie is taking up.
Manny doesn’t know from nothing. One of the signs of life that Hank has discovered is the Sports Illustrated Swim Suit Issue (that most controversial of cultural artifacts), and when Manny’s head—he’s still rather corpse like—lolls over and sees one of the scantily clad women, he says, “What’s that?” He literally seems not to know what a woman is. Hank tries to explain, but Manny’s penis, which comes to life in his pants like a curious little rodent, obviously remembers. It’s moving around like a periscope. Farting, the Swim Suit issue, erections: we’re in the land of adolescent humor here, but we’re also in the land of instinctual physical life. Manny is coming to life, one function at a time. Farting first, then erections. His body has its priorities.
They are essentially trying to get back to life—Hank was on the edge of losing his life, and Manny had actually died—and Manny’s question raises the question of what they’re trying to get back to. What is this life they so much want to “have”? Hank had believed that when he was about to die his life would pass pleasantly before him, but as he nearly hanged himself the only thing he saw was an image of riding on a bus listening to music on headphones, and a beautiful young woman (Mary Elizabeth Winsted) who rode the bus with him, and whose photo he surreptitiously took (and still has on his cell phone, which is down to 10% function). That was life to him, dreaming about being with this young woman whom he never actually spoke to. Through some other questions Manny asks, we discover that Hank had a mildly abusive father who called him retarded and told him he would die young if he masturbated too much, a beloved mother who actually did die young. That’s all we know of his life. This life that they’re trying to get back to doesn’t sound like much: it sounds as if Hank really wasn’t living. On the other hand, from the standpoint of guys stranded on the beach, or in the woods, it sounds pretty great, riding the bus, seeing the world go by, seeing the beautiful woman and wishing you could talk to her.
They have happened into a place that doesn’t really have “life” around, at least not the life they’re looking for, but it does have a lot of trash; with stuff they find, they recreate the life Hank once had, as he explains it all to Manny. In the meantime, Swiss Army Man is a good description of Manny; not only did his farts propel them across the ocean, he creates gushers of water (saliva, apparently) for Hank to drink; his farts can light a fire; his mouth can propel various obstacles that skewer the wildlife around them, so soon they’re enjoying a lavish meal of grilled squirrel and fish. They even find a bottle of vodka. Life is good. It actually is kind of life.
I don’t know that I’ve begun to suggest how weird all this us, how uproariously funny, how inventive, how fundamentally sweet and touching. There were times when I thought that our filmmakers—Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert—were just a couple more young guys who had spent their whole lives watching movies, whose movie keeps referencing other movies—Jurassic Park, ET, a whole host of buddy movies—and in a way that is true. It’s a movie about two guys who pretend to live a life that was already about 75% pretense. Hank, after all, didn’t even know the woman he was in love with. Yet pretending about life is a kind of life. We’re all at least partly pretending. The relationship this two men establish is as real as any other relationship. It actually seems more real, and more touching, than any number of other buddy movies I can name. (Midnight Cowboy comes to mind as a favorite, but it ends when Ratso dies. In this movie, that’s just the beginning.) And the acting, the directing, the special effects: everything about this movie is superb. Even the music, a bunch of a capella songs that these two guys sing, is great. Paul Dano has a face that conveys incredible amounts of emotion. He even, when he’s pretending to be the girl on the bus, looks like a rather pretty woman. And Daniel Radcliffe is the greatest corpse in the history of Hollywood. This is a far greater—and more difficult—role than Harry Potter.
It would be unfair to talk about what happens at the end of the movie. I could write another review at least this long about the final ten minutes. I’d actually love to do that (though I’d have to see the movie again). There were times when I thought the movie was on the verge of going on too long, taking the joke too far, but I don’t think it actually did. The final scene is marvelous. It’s completely appropriate. I have no idea what it means, or how it resolves the central question the movie asks. That’s why it’s so appropriate.
To even mention the name of Samuel Beckett is enormous praise from me, and I don’t mean to compare these young men to him in terms of dramatic talent or use of language. I would guess that they must have had him in mind, and a movie that asks the question What is life? is not unambitious. I’m not saying they answer the question; that would be ridiculous. But in addressing it they produce a work of art that is incredibly inventive, entertaining, hilarious, I can’t say enough good things about it. It’s easily the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.
I can’t wait to see what these guys do next.
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