‘Maybe everyone’s a little bit ugly. Yeah, maybe we’re all just ugly, dying sacks of shit and maybe all it’ll take is one person to just be okay with that.’
If you were to be skeptical about the premise of directing duo, The Daniels’ (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) widely-discussed new comedy drama, Swiss Army Man, I wouldn’t blame you. People’s reactions tend to be fairly consistent when they hear about a film detailing a friendship between a lonely man stranded on a desert island and a flatulent corpse (not only a flatulent corpse, but a flatulent corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe, I might add). Certainly one of the more unconventional films of the year, Swiss Army Man was greatly surprising in its effective use of simplistic toilet humour to create a genuinely affecting drama with huge emotional resonance.
The casting choice here was of particular interest to me. Paul Dano’s standout performances in 2007’s There Will Be Blood and 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine cemented him as a fantastically gifted, yet underrated, actor, and the uniqueness of his role in Swiss Army Man compared to his other films only further increased the appeal of this film before I saw it. As expected, Dano absolutely brought this film to life, quite literally, as it follows the gradual unfolding of his character Hank’s relationship with Manny, the aforementioned corpse which washes up on the shore of the island he finds himself stuck on. Together, they discover Manny’s various bodily ‘powers’ which aid Hank’s survival on his journey back to civilisation. Hank’s eccentricity confirms Dano’s natural aptitude for playing the outsider, and the bizarre nature of the pair’s father-son dynamic makes for some very interesting characterisation. As a blank canvas of sorts, Manny’s naive, almost childlike view of the world and the social constructs and conventions which form the basis of our collective consciousness are both entertaining and enlightening. The screenplay was clearly written with a view of attempting to shine a spotlight on our shortcomings as a society, and the negative attitudes many have towards taboo subjects such as masturbation and bodily functions. Despite being somewhat inconsistent in his acting ability post-Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe excelled in this film on both a physical and emotional level, especially when taking into account the demanding and likely unfamiliar territory of playing a corpse.
In terms of cinematography, the film is a joy to watch, with The Daniels’ direction allowing for a creative and experimental visual style which takes advantage of the leafy and picturesque forest environment where the bulk of the action takes place. Its inventive use of a charming folk-infused soundtrack which, surprisingly, made use of the actors’ own voices was another excellent decision, adding to feeling that it never took itself too seriously. With this in mind, however, the ending was the film’s main weakness, drawing out the drama for longer than was warranted, to the point where the humour and flair which worked so well was lost for a little while, and some levity was required to round everthing off succinctly. Some sort of meta joke would perhaps have worked better in place of some of the events which occurred in the last quarter of an hour.
Despite the minor structural and tonal issues towards the end, Swiss Army Man is a true accomplishment in terms of both originality and effective screenwriting. Any film which manages to create genuinely meaningful messages from such unabashedly unsophisticated humour deserves to be commended. The film is ultimately tied together by the interesting juxtaposition of Hank’s jaded, melancholic yearning to live, rather than just exist, and Manny’s desire for the same thing despite his complete lack of knowledge and experience. Combining vibrant visuals with distinctive performances and one of the most unexpected premises of 2016, Swiss Army Man is simply a must-see.