Swiss Army Man movie full length review - confounding, funny, wild, bewildering, disappointing, deep, touching, an experience and a half
It's not often we get movies like Swiss Army Man. You have to give the "Daniels" that much as filmmakers - they make going to see a movie at a 16-screen multiplex at a mall into an experience that you can't don't have every day.
It hasn't been since, I don't know, Under the Skin when I was staggering out of a movie theater wondering what the f*** I just sat through passing by kiosks and pretzel stands with muzak and whiny kids passing me by in the hallways. This is because Swiss Army Man functions like a fever dream concocted by dudes who are equal parts visionary mad-philosophical geniuses and Beavis & Butt-head. In Siskel & Ebert boil-it-down-terms, it's actually a thumbs down for me, but it's the most admirable thumbs down I'd give in a decade.
If you watch the trailer it appears as if the premise is set fairly succinctly: Paul Dano is Hank, a guy stranded on a deserted island who is ready to kill himself when he sees the corpse of Daniel Radcliffe wash up on the beach. Hank decides maybe he should hold off (is he alive, he's not sure on first glance) and gets out of his noose to see him. Nope, he's dead, and more than that he's... gassy, farting up like he's eating beans around the fire in Blazing Saddles. But it turns out these farts make him, well, useful, and over the title card we see Dano riding Radcliffe's farting self on the seas. He may be even more useful, and so a journey is set out to find 'home' possibly. I think what I admire so much is that these directors surely have something that sets them apart which is knowing how to use a camera and editing - they come from music videos, I think, and their timing and their cuts show how well they cut rhythmically, with music by Andy Hull & Robert McDowell that often will come in as Dano sings a few bars - and so at least in that sense it's certainly never boring. And I like these two actors and, yes, their chemistry: Radcliffe actually does talk a lot (he may be the most talkative 'zombie' I've seen in a modern film), and he talks as if he's learning all new things (because, since he's resurrected, he is), but Dano has to carry practically all of the emotion of the film - the wild, zany joy, the delirious, the sadness, the comic grief and anguish, and much of the madness and insanity. He can do it all, though Radcliffe's role as 'Manny' is trickier since he is, you know, dead, and lacks expression but still does so much (my favorite scene and the most touching, as he expresses what it means to live and die from atop a tree branch as Hank is being dragged away by a bear).
I say all of this and tell you that if you have some interest in seeing it and want my recommendation I firmly believe that you should go see it... it's too weird. Or it may be the simple thing of not 'getting it' all in one viewing, though I don't know if I'd be tempted to sit down to see it again, not for a long time. It piles on the gross-out jokes, which is fine, and I was with it at first. Then it continues to get stranger and more outlandish with how Hank tries to get Manny to understand what, uh, 'love' is and feelings and new ways to get his boner to point out so it can work as the compass. I was engaged with the material but unsure if the filmmakers even knew where to take it after a while, like a skit that's overrun its course. And then it comes to the climax of the film, when the characters are revealed to be (spoiler) NOT stranded on an island this whole time. It feels like a cop-out or a cheat, like Shyamalan's The Village or something, like 'THIS is what was happening, are you s***ing me?'
I wish I could have a stronger intellectual argument for my criticism of where the film ends up in its resolution, but it's hard to articulate it. Swiss Army Man works a great deal on how emotionally you read into this situation, how a man who is talking with a corpse that isn't really talking to him (... OR IS HE?? no, he isn't, it's in his head, relax), and how this metaphor for life and death gets played out with Hank over and over in these woods. But if you start to put pieces together it doesn't make much sense past 'well, the guy's a complete nut-job and so... should I care?'
In case I haven't stressed it enough yet, this is one of the weirdest sits I've had in a major motion picture release, certainly in the midst of a summer movie season. Not that that should matter, and if anything the audacity for these filmmakers to find the millions to put this together (I'm sure even on a low budget it wasn't cheap to some of the farting effects and locations, not to mention the two leads) is worth applause. But the filmmakers are also being weird for weird's sake, like it's an affectation to bring up the same quirky music that at first is rousing and funny and later on becomes like a musical tic.
It even has something to say I'm sure about masculinity and the role of what men look for in themselves and women and how they view things as elemental as masturbation and gratification (a long deceased mother of Hank's is brought up more than once, as well as a disappointed dad). So... there's a lot to unpack here. Too much, probably. But I'd rather have too much than not enough.