When it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival Swiss Army Man was viewed as a really strange oddity. A good movie to be sure, but one that would be really hard to market. And yet now that it’s finally opened it wasn’t an obscure arthouse that I ended up seeing the film in, it was a mainstream multiplex. In fact there were a handful of multiplexes I could have chosen to see the movie in if I so chose. Nationwide the film was available in no fewer than 600 screens. Admittedly that’s less than a fifth of the screen count of the ridiculous looking bomb The Legend of Tarzan, but for a left of the dial indie that’s a pretty hefty screen count. Credit for this likely goes to the increasingly amazing indie distributor A24. I’ve talked about these guys before and I’ll probably continue to talk about them because they seem to have the kind of steel balls necessary to push interesting movie on an increasingly unadventurous filmgoing public. The movies they promote usually aren’t purely arthouse creations, they’re usually in English and tend to have at least some production value, but they definitely take risks and it’s wonderful to see them getting distributed by people who value getting these movies out to the wider public.
Swiss Army Man begins on a pacific island where a cast away named Hank (Paul Dano) is on the verge of hanging himself from despair and loneliness when he suddenly sees a body washed ashore. He’s intrigued enough to halt his suicide but only grows more depressed when he sees that this body of a man named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) is long dead. He goes back to finish his suicidal plans when suddenly he hears a noise coming from the body… the noise of flatulence. He checks on this body again (and this is where the movie’s magical realism decidedly kicks into gear) to find that this body is expelling so much gas that he can use it as a sort of jet-ski to leave the island. Eventually he washes ashore in what appears to be the Pacific Northwest and embarks on a journey by foot through a large wooded area and carries along this dead body… in part because the body starts talking back to him and in part because he realizes that through whatever magic is going on here he can use this body for various survival tasks.
As you can probably tell from that plot description this is probably not a movie that’s supposed to be taken literally. My initial assumption was that the character was killed in his suicide attempt and that the rest of the movie was going to be a some sort of purgatory hallucination, but the movie never does come out and say this and the film is probably meant to more of an extended metaphor for a lonely guy coming out of his shell than any kind of literal journey back to civilization. It’s soon revealed that Hank is a depressed loner who has more or less been stalking a woman who he’s been seeing on a bus and the film is all supposed to be a manifestation of him trying to re-assess his life and his psyche up to this point and build up the courage to reach out to other people. If the film is indeed a metaphor for Hank’s loneliness I do have to wonder what Manny the corpse is supposed to represent. Is he supposed to be a new friend who helps him out of his predicament? Some part of his subconscious? Some kind of wingman that he wishes he had? It’s not entirely clear.
The film was directed by a pair of filmmakers named Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, who credit themselves as “Daniels” because of their shared first names. This is their first feature but they’ve been working for a while at the music video/short film/commercial tier of directing and are probably most notable for having directed the absolutely insane music video for the DJ Snake/Lil Jon song “Turn Down for What.” Given that background and the general style of this movie and go out on a limb and assume that these guys are really into Spike Jonze and/or Michel Gondry. That music video logic of a visual high concept is definitely at play here and you do kind of get the impression of young directors showing off their visual filmmaking talents and quirk. This isn’t to say they don’t do this well because they do. The production values here are pretty decent for how weird and difficult to market this movie is and “Daniels” do a pretty good job of making all the strange dead body effects and other magical realist touches come across pretty well.
In case you haven’t already been able to tell, this movie is pretty weird. Nothing inherently wrong with that and this movie carries its weirdness pretty well. It is not, however, the kind of weirdness that is necessarily going to hit my personal sweet-spot. I was not a fan of the scatological elements of the movie, at all, and I could have also lived without some of the more aggressively whimsical moments. Still there is something pretty watchable about the whole thing. Daniel Radcliffe is quite good in it given the really weird nature of his role and I also found Paul Dano to be more tolerable than usual given that this role is pretty squarely in his rather odd wheelhouse. I guess in some ways I kind of just admired the movie from a distance and enjoyed the way it was made more than anything else. It’s hard to explain but I guess I was more amused by the fact that the movie exists at all moreso than I was actually engaged by its storyarc or the plight of its protagonist. I do want to see what “Daniels” do next but I’m hoping they find a Charlie Kaufman to guide them along the way because I’m not sure that these guys are as profound as screenwriters as they think they are.