Genre: Comedy, Low Fantasy
Surprisingly almost as provocative as it is funny and bizarre, Swiss Army Man tells the story of Paul Dano’s Hank, a man seemingly stranded on a desert island and about to kill himself when he comes across the carcass of Manny (Daniel Radcliffe). Manny’s dead body, he discovers, has special powers that can help him get home. Using Manny’s powers makes Manny become more and more alive, and teaching him about life, and more specifically, making him feel love, makes him develop more and more powers to help.
To tell you that extra powerful gastric propulsion and the ability to projectile vomit clean drinking water are two of Manny’s powers, probably won’t initially support my claim that Swiss Army Man is actually a touching and heart-warming movie. It’s ridiculous – but it’s that ridiculousness that makes the emotion possible. Because unlike many supposedly heart-warming, inspiring films about life that have come before it, Swiss Army Man recognizes that these films can be earnest and parodies them. Hank being propelled across the ocean on Manny’s farts, or catching his dinner by firing objects from his mouth, for example, is accompanied by sickly sweet music with that distinctive, uplifting indie feel (made entirely with soft voices – ‘bom bom bom bom bom’). With this, Swiss Army Man detaches itself from the ordinary and forces us to be at home in the surreal. This stance allows us to see life from a sort of vantage point. As Manny questions the things Hank explains to him, we question the nature of the life that we live ourselves. Why shouldn’t we enjoy the feeling of a cool breeze, or riding the bus and watching the world go by, as Manny yearns for? You will probably leave Swiss Army Man not knowing what to think – how could you be so emotionally affected by something so crude and strange? Is the moment of powerful anagnorisis really a fart?
Unfortunately, the film may have an original plot but Hank’s story, as is revealed piece by piece throughout the film, is really no more interesting than many others that have gone before. The themes of Swiss Army Man never really add up and it falls into the trap of placing too much emphasis on the importance of romantic love in the pursuit of happiness. Hank is ugly, lonely and nobody loves him, he loves a girl who doesn’t know he exists. In one sense it is relatable, in another it makes the real truth behind his situation all the more far-fetched (and I don’t mean Manny farting him across the ocean). It all becomes clear (or does it?) in the film’s confusing finale.
One wonders whether Swiss Army Man would be as effective as it is without its stars (not its acting, its stars). Does Mary Elizabeth Winstead really add anything great to the film in her performance of Sarah, Hank’s unrequited love, who makes an extended appearance towards the end? No, but there’s just something satisfying about seeing your favourite actors interact in situations as ridiculous as these. The acting is good though. Paul Dano’s check shirt wearing Hank is pitifully soft and lovely, and I’ve got to hand it to Daniel Radcliffe, for playing the most enigmatic dead person I have ever seen.