Swiss Army Man (2016) – Review

This was definitely directed by music video directors. I love how Daniels are branching into feature films, and not compromising their art in the slightest. They’ve brought that music video conceptual thinking onto the big screen at a time when no other movie dares. Their integration of music as an element of story-telling reminds you of their roots. They’ve captured that sense of what singing music can genuinely do for you, even if it’s as simple as singing alone to an audience of one.

Daniels offer more than just Daniel Radcliffe farting and playing dead, they’re offering a beautiful, intelligent, innovative and emotionally compelling tale of one man’s journey from the brink of death to being human again. Both literally and figuratively through the story of Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) and Hank (Paul Dano).

That said, it is a fart joke galore. Which may worry a few, but they’re surprisingly heartwarming moments that blend uproarious joy and excitement with belly wobbling laughter. There’s really nothing wasted on just one thing. Everything that works as easy childish humour is also hitting you super hard on an emotional level. These silly jokes get paired with moments of relief, using these unconventional situations to save the day and create a laugh.

What I’m getting at is that nothing in Swiss Army Man is purely superficial, something clever is always going on. His farts will take him where he needs to be, they will create fire for cold nights and many other useful things. Without giving spoilers I can without a doubt call Manny a ‘Swiss Army Man’, or as Hank prefers to call him “some kind of multi-purpose tool man”. And on a separate note: The whole avoidance of calling him the “Swiss Army Man” was tediously grating, the work-around to avoid calling him by the title was far too blatantly obvious (but it’s not a major gripe so I forgive it). But I don’t understand the fear. As far as I’m concerned saying the title isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I didn’t complain when I heard “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown” in Chinatown; I didn’t mind when Fight Club had a “Fight Club”; and frankly I didn’t mind when they discussed “The Third Man” in The Third Man, so please, just because some videos went viral about ‘movies that say their title in the film’, don’t get all weird about saying Swiss Army Man in your movie or just quit calling him the multi-purpose tool guy.

Anyway, back to the review. Many moments come and go where the film could’ve easily spoon-fed you your interpretations, but it didn’t. You’re probably going to assume that your interpretations are correct, setting up your expectations, and then suddenly something switches, forcing you to rethink your interpretations and presumptions. I did, and I’ve been missing this feeling for a while now. It’s a miracle this exists in such an anti-experimental cinematic age.

Daniels could’ve taken the easy route and had Hank be “dead all along”, and while they never firmly dismiss it (though the ending somewhat implies a rejection of this idea), they’d rather constantly alternate between themes without cutting threads. In the beginning, I thought Swiss Army Man was a metaphor for fatherhood, observing the way he nurtures and teaches Manny, acting as a guardian for him. Mistakenly, I thought that Hank would reveal that he left his pregnant partner and must now grow to become – blah blah blah. And I was wrong, because the story becomes about Manny’s pursuit of love, but then it doesn’t, it’s about taking missed oppurtunities, but it’s not, it’s about fear of society, but it’s not, it’s about learning to live with whatever makes you happy, but it’s not… and so on and so on. And this constant reversal then reversal attitude to theme and plot opens the film to so many fresh and innovative ideas. There’s this active rejection to focus on a conventional singular direction.

Ultimately, there isn’t really much to complain about here. If you’ve seen Interesting Ball then you’ll know exactly what Daniels are going for this time. They are a trademark of using a bizarre concept to explore human emotion in a new and interesting visual tone that combines a contemporary indiewood camera style with abstract and experimental content, offering an absurdist high & low brow tangent to works like Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty and Into The Wild. They’re on their way to becoming true auteurs and inspiring a creative wave of film making.

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