by Philip Price
“Swiss Army Man” is an odd film. One should know that first and foremost. When seeing the quotes on the posters or other marketing material that claim, "you've never seen a movie like this," you should take that to heart. Sure, I get it, you've probably heard that countless times before, but if you continue to read such quotes you'll get reassurance that such hyperbole is accurate when discussing “Swiss Army Man.” It is in this wholly unique fashion that the film naturally finds its own identity, but also finds a way to convey what is essentially an existential crisis by our main character, Hank, played by Paul Dano. Of course, when the film opens and we meet Dano's character as he attempts to kill himself by hanging we don't know any of this. We assume, given the writings we glean on pieces of trash floating in the water, that Hank is the lone survivor of some type of sea-faring accident and that he has more or less reached his breaking point. It is as he readies himself to step off a cooler with the noose around his neck that he notices a body has washed ashore. Though this body belongs to Daniel Radcliffe it is clear the soul inside has long since gone on to greener pastures. For Hank though, this body he eventually deems Manny is his saving grace. It becomes apparent almost immediately that directors and screenwriters Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively known as Daniels) enter into Hank's personal reality and are insistent on not letting us out of such a world until they have made a clear statement on each individuals own necessary version of sanity. We all need a different kind of rational to deal with our different set of circumstances. When it comes to Hank we have a very fractured and uncomfortable human being who, as we discover more about him, comes to be this man that doesn't feel he meets the basic standards of normal that society requires. While “Swiss Army Man” may feel like and project to be an outlandish buddy movie of sorts between a man who at first glance likely belongs in an insane asylum and a corpse the movie certainly has bigger ideas in its head than the fart jokes that have made up much of the conversation around it.
The set-up is simple: Hank is marooned on this island and in order to both keep his sanity while simultaneously delving further and further into delusions he keeps the corpse of Radcliffe's body around to both have discussions with as well as to use in other ways that include helping with building shelters, hunting for food, and riding him like a jet ski. Radcliffe plays the human version of a Swiss army knife to Dano's stranded Hank (hence the title), but as Radcliffe's Manny comes to possess abilities akin to a human that is alive and breathing he not only serves as a way for Hank to survive physically, but mentally (sorta). This is all very sticky territory as, if you were to see this film play out without being inside Hank's head, it would be terrifying. That we are given full access to Hank's psyche and what qualifies as logic from his point of view we come to understand the world we're existing in and it is compelling, but always somewhat tragic. You hate to judge Hank as his inherent fears about society come from the fact he has been forced into thinking he doesn't belong or that he's never been good enough his entire life. And so, though we know Manny is purely a creation of Hank's mind, something the brain has invented to help him survive, and given the fact Hank imbues upon Manny a child-like mentality we come to understand that what “Swiss Army Man” encapsulates is a kind of therapy session for Hank as he discusses topics such as sex, fear, internal conflicts and personal tendencies in what comes to be an eye-opening, self-evaluation of sorts for our protagonist. The trick here is that despite Hank feeling alone and different the filmmakers know this is more of an epidemic than a single exception. Certain viewers will relate to the ideas of not feeling as if they measure up to what society expects from men and hopefully come to understand it's ridiculous that a certain type of masculinity should apply to an entire gender. Other viewers will latch onto the feelings Hank expresses over his longing for a girl he saw on the bus every day while at the same time being afraid to shatter the illusion he created of her. We can all relate to the pursuit of happiness, but it's the idea of being able to overcome the obstacles within that pursuit that Daniels really latches onto and runs with.
These aren't issues or ideas that haven't been explored a million times before. We've all had similar thoughts about ourselves, our insecurities and our shortcomings when stacking them against how other people's lives *seem*, but it is all in the way such ideas are conveyed that make them fresh and interesting and it is in this particular conveyance that such ideas don't feel nearly as puerile as they could have. On the forefront of the reasoning fart jokes with deeper meanings work is the fact Daniels has two credible and rather incredible actors doing much of the heavy lifting. Like the themes, there is nothing new about seeing Dano play a depressed white guy who doesn't feel like he belongs, but given Hank's circumstances Dano is able to add more layers and insight to this character than we might typically get were we seeing him fight against those he fears rather than simply confronting his own self. Dano is fine as he's done this a handful of times before and is a perceptive enough actor to know how to push this type of character in different directions with this unique set-up, but it is clearly Radcliffe who has both the more difficult and interesting role. As Manny, Radcliffe is technically playing a dead dude, but more than just having to look and act like a corpse Radcliffe then has to project this infantile mentality and be present in this consistent state of wonder while exuding as much through a limited vocabulary. It is amusing to watch Manny figure out the world around him, but that he's simultaneously dealing with the burden of having Hank project all his issues upon him only adds to the true psychological nature of what we're witnessing. Needless to say, this leaves a lot for Radcliffe to convey while not being able to emote very much. It helps that Radcliffe and Dano form a relationship akin to what you'd see in a buddy comedy, but with Radcliffe playing an aspect of the character he's playing off of for the purposes of that character's large-scale existential crisis it makes the line Radcliffe has to walk all the more interesting. Anchored by the relationship Hank builds with himself through Manny that Dano and Radcliffe execute with pure tenderness in the face of harsh surroundings and featuring Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the girl of Hank's false reality a small, but committed cast aids in allowing the fart and erection jokes to go a long way. Further than you no doubt imagined they could.
“Swiss Army Man” (I kind of wished they'd used the acronym and called Radcliffe's character Sam instead) is a whimsical, demented fantasy of a film in many ways. It is largely unique in its visual representation of the events we see unfold and employs a type of mysticism in its nature cinematography that only further reinforces the magical aspects of this world Hank has created for himself. Going one step further to let us know immediately how inside the head of Hank we actually are the soundtrack for the film, which also serves as the score, features Radcliffe and Dano on vocals (which immediately scored the film bonus points in my book as Love & Mercy was one of my favorite movies of last year). Composed by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell the consistent humming and improvising of lyrics that serve as the basis of this score only augment how alone and in what state of mind our protagonist is. That Hull and McDowell are able to spin "Cotton Eye Joe," into some kind of heart-wrenching ballad is beyond comprehension, but that they also use the world around Hank and Manny as well as their strange discussions to build this kind of soundtrack to their time together-the actors sometimes breaking into song as if they were in a musical-does nothing but to make this all feel a little bit more magical.
What ultimately comes to remain the movie’s strongest trait is that it can and wants to discuss how Hank isn't necessarily living life by pushing everything away from him. That waiting is more or less delaying the life he could be having, but it does so in ways that never come across as heavy-handed. Though the film clearly touches on some weighty topics that have to deal not only with what mental illness Hank might actually suffer from, but also going so far as to question why we have social constructs that tell us flatulence in front of others is disgusting there is a beauty and a whimsy that we only see in this way because we're seeing things through the Hank's mind's eye. There is a beautiful sequence in the middle of the film where Hank and Manny build a bus and reconstruct scenes from what their lives once entailed where I wondered how fascinating it might be for an outsider to stumble upon this site and wonder what might have happened to lead to the creation of something so random yet so uniquely enchanting only to realize a moment later that we were seeing that story, we were being given that insight. In that moment it became clear that while this makeshift reality may seem sad and depressing to someone looking in that, for Hank, to be able to create his own home is far better than having to go back to the rule restricted world where he can't live at all. Maybe he's not delaying. Maybe his own mind is his paradise-is where he feels he gets the most out of life. Though the film ends on less of an ambiguous note than I might have preferred the character that gets the final line in the film perfectly sums up what every audience will no doubt be feeling as the credits roll. Still, it is impossible to deny the sympathy and strange logic applied to our society that comes from the insanity Hank experiences that we'd never understand had we not seen this man on the brink of death through the perspective of his best friend who just so happens to be dead.