Directors: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Cast: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Spoilers Within: Yes
Paul Dano plays Hank, a stranded man on a desert island who finds himself at the end of his rope until a body – played by Daniel Radcliffe and a dummy – washes up on shore. We don’t know how long he has been on this island, we don’t know what happened to get him there, and we don’t know if what we’re seeing is tangible. Through verbalising his thoughts and brief, single location flashbacks, we learn that Hank is an outsider. An introvert wallflower whose transient connections with the opposite sex (or even, society) is through covertly capturing the moment and keeping to himself. He’s a self-appointed weirdo, and the film is reflective of this. With Swiss Army Man, The Daniels (Kwan and Scheinert) have symbolised Hank’s characteristics in the strangest, funniest and most endearingly creative films of 2016.
Whereas Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (the film I watched just hours before this) delivered genital punchlines in a vulgar, unintelligent manner, Swiss Army Man punctuates these lines with a relevance to Hank and Manny ludicrous story. Boners acting as a compass, flatulence as a multi-purpose escape mechanism, and a thorax as a gun chamber: these gags are utilised in a way that is pertinent to their fantastical environment. Even humourous exchanges on the topic of masturbation and sex are perfectly in keeping with these characters and their situation: with two men alone on a desert island – no matter how mentally reclusive or reticent – conversation would invariably lead to the profane and scatological. Manny’s bodily functions elicit chuckles, but rather than being constantly wrung for laughs, The Daniels’s script uses these in situ with a nimble equity of humour and purpose.
This last point also relates to the gleeful soundtrack; an inspired mixture of quirky covers of the Rednex’s ‘Cotton Eye Joe’, John Williams’ Jurassic Park theme and character created songs, with articulated beats and twangs sampled and looped to create an energetic bed of music: the kind you’d make as you’re walking alone, composing noises in your head. This is reinforced by Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull, scoring the film with a haunting, floating calmness, using his voice as an instrument to lyrically address the visuals (‘Montage‘ should be this year’s ‘Everything Is Awesome‘). (The Daniels directed a similarly earthy and emotive video for Manchester Orchestra’s ‘Simple Math‘, which, I believe, is where their idea to have Hull score Swiss Army Man years later came to pass).
This is a film that relies heavily on the performances by the leads, and fortunately, the casting department did a grand job of selecting Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe in their accomplished roles. Neither of them once miss the mark with their respective characters, hitting each beat with a hilarious sincerity, even in the face of such absurd circumstances. Praising Dano can never be exhausted, and here he is truly something wonderful: exasperated, dazed, and hopeful, and by the finale, the extent of his damaged personality is acknowledged with a tender poignancy, presented through a sorrowful look and a tonal crack of sadness that remind of his career-launching “Fuck” in Little Miss Sunshine. Radcliffe once again shifts further from his beginnings with a brilliantly physical and riotously flexible role that lends a unique sense of fun to the gradually sombre narrative, breaking up the dispiriting loneliness with contorting grins and naive understandings of familiar concepts. Manny is the symbiotic friend Hank needs, and Radcliffe expresses this flawlessly.
As the film delves into the psyche of this psychologically injured man, the outlandish premise evolves into something more than just a curiously silly quest; epiphanies and revelations of the past given through flashbacks as Manny vocalises Hank’s insecurities and a yearning for a life that isn’t his own. These answers are drip-fed in a satisfying and generously sentimental way: never drab, and never cloying. Weirdly enough, even for a film that features a boner compass, the coda in the final seconds – while not necessarily harming the film – certainly calls into question the preceding discoveries as something a little cheaper than expected. Had The Daniels avoided this redundant – though no less comical – shot, their ending could have gone unblemished, but it’s an unnecessarily ambiguity-seeking moment that the final act felt like it was leading away from.
Swiss Army Man is clearly not for everyone. Its initial base humour could understandably put off audiences (and has done as much in countless reports of walkouts) and its reliance on giddy resourcefulness could be seen as distasteful to some, but for those that stick with its inventive dialogue on mental health, you’ll be rewarded tenfold. It’s playful, it’s eccentric and it’s never boring, but above all, it’s extraordinarily unique, which nowadays is the most important of all.