I don’t really know what to make of Swiss Army Man. It’s impossible to pin down exactly what it is – it’s doesn’t fit into the confines of any one genre (I guess comedy / adventure would be the closest), it’s incredibly strange and is proud to be so, its humor goes back and forth between clever and downright juvenile, and it’s difficult to decide on what exactly the movie is about, if anything. I’m really split down the middle on whether or not I like it or dislike it, but either way, I have to admit that it’s one of the most original films I’ve seen in a while.
A young man named Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on a deserted island. We don’t know how he got there, and I don’t recall ever being told, but it’s not important. Hank is about to hang himself, having given up on any chance of rescue. Just as he’s about to do the deed, a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up onshore. Hank is relieved; he can use this poor guy’s belt to guarantee a successful hanging. But just as he’s about to make his second suicide attempt, the corpse unleashes a ballad of flatulence, farting so rapidly and powerfully that it propels itself back into the ocean.
Are you still with it? Because this is how this thing starts, immediately setting the bizarre mood that it goes for. Hank wades into the water to retrieve the body, feeling a strange connection to it, and discovers that he can actually use its farts to operate it like a jet ski. He screams and cheers in joy and triumph as he jets through the ocean and toward salvation on the back of the slack-jawed, lazy-eyed corpse.
If the movie ended there, with that moment as the title flashes onscreen and the music swells and Hank hollers to the heavens, I would have given it a perfect five stars. That opening turns into one of the most hysterical moments I’ve ever seen in a movie. But, this is a full length film, and the remainder of it gets a little murky. Hank names the corpse Manny, the two of them end up in a forest, and they still have a journey ahead of them to get home. Manny eventually begins talking, but is unable to recall his life before he died, so Hank teaches him all about life and its rules and irregularities as they trek through the woods.
The farts have a tremendous payoff at the start of the film, but the joke continues on and on until the very end. “That’s still funny” Hank remarks later on, but by a certain point it’s really not. Swiss Army Man’s immature sense of humor is part of its weird brand and style, but it doesn’t work too well for it, maybe because it relies on it too much. Manny’s erect penis acts as the duo’s literal compass on their adventure, but it doesn’t end up being as funny as that sounds. I’m certainly not above this kind of comedy, trust me, but most of it just isn’t very funny in this movie.
Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe are two of my favorite actors and they have fantastic chemistry in this, but I couldn’t ever get behind their characters. Hank is a pretty weird creep, and Manny is a total asshole far too often. Neither of them are very likable, and sure, maybe they’re supposed to be that way, but it makes it tough to root for them and want them to get home when I don’t care for them much at all. It’s also way too clear that this is a film made solely by men – certain dialogue about women and how to talk to them comes across as just uncomfortable.
At its core, I’d say that Swiss Army Man is about a guy who’s always been an awkward loner (with a poor relationship with his father), but has always craved a real human connection. Manny is the only real positive friendship and relationship that Hank has ever had, and while the two certainly have a “bro” dynamic that turns into something more, Hank also serves as a sort of father figure for Manny, who doesn’t understand how anything in this world works. The two are helping each other not just survive the wilderness but grow as people, and of course, the question of whether or not Manny is actually coming back to life or if this is all in Hank’s head hangs above them for most of the film.
When the humor goes from juvenile to just weird and silly (like the two putting on a shadow puppet show reenacting Jurassic Park or creating a whole small town out of stuff in the woods), and when the movie waxes poetic on the ways of life and society (“Why should we even go back? It sounds like you’re not allowed to do anything there.” Manny says), it’s actually pretty great. The rest, not so much. I can’t decide whether the ending is profound or just a reaffirmation that the whole thing is one big joke, but oddly enough, it would work either way. Swiss Army Man wears its bizarreness as a badge of honor, and I can’t help but commend it for that.
2.5 / 5 Stars
Swiss Army Man is now streaming on Netflix.