Fuse Film Review: “Swiss Army Man” — Way Down the Rabbit Hole
Swiss Army Man is much more than your standard adolescent comedy or a campy send-up of the genre.
Swiss Army Man, directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. At Kendall Square Cinema, Somerville Theatre, AMC Lowes Boston Common.
By Paul Dervis
ITS A PROFOUND MOVIE ABOUT CRUSHED DREAMS AMD IMAGINARY FRIENDS.
ITS A SILLY, SCATOLOGICAL MOVIE THAT COULD HAVE BEEN PRODUCED BY ADAM SANDLER AND CAST WITH HIS BAND OF OVERGROWN ADOLESCENT ACTORS.
ITS A FILM THAT OWES MORE TO ANTONIN ARTAUD’S JET OF BLOOD THAN WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S.
Suffice it to say that this film is a parable that can not be categorized Swiss Army Man stands alone in both style and genre.
The film opens with Hank (played by the still very boyish Paul Dano, who has appeared in such diverse films as 12 Years a Slave, Taking Woodstock, Little Miss Sunshine, and Fast Food Nation) about to end his sorry life. He has been stranded on some deserted island, alone and hungry. He makes a primitive noose and is in the process of hanging himself when a young man in a suit is washed up ashore.
A friend? A potential shipwrecked mate? Glorious thoughts race through Hank’s mind as he falls, naturally, to his death. But as the fates would have it, Hank is terrible at making a noose and it breaks. A reprieve!
But the stranger is no longer of the living, and our hero goes back to end it. Just when all appears lost, rope around his neck again, Hank sees the man twitch. He goes back to the body, but it is merely the last vestiges of electrical charges running through the corpse…as well as the grotesque releasing of gas from the rear.
But hey, a dead guy to keep him company beats sitting alone on the beach waiting for the inevitable.
And the wild ride begins.
This film is a fantasia out of the fertile, immature, brilliant minds of the team of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. The two Dans have worked on four small indies together, and they take dual credit as both writers and directors…I imagine so we don’t know which to blame…or praise.
Daniel Radcliffe, who I have often thought of as a wooden performer who might grow more limber in adult roles, actually shows some dimension here — he delivers a very funny, sweetly deadpan turn. He is a surreal millstone slung around Dano’s neck.
Their adventures include stepping in a massive pile of dung while hearing some unseen monster-like animal breathing behind a bush; falling into a pit from which there is no escape; and Hank riding through the ocean on Manny’s back (he has named the cadaver Manny), like a human jet-ski propelled by the constant flatulence released by the dead body.
But is Manny really dead?
As the film progresses, Manny begins to speak. Is it in Hank’s deranged head? Is there some weird type of life after death? Does it matter? Clearly, one can’t answer these questions any more than one can apply reality to Alice in Wonderland. Just go along for the ride.
But there are deeper issues at play. We are never told how or why Hank was stranded on the island. But we do know that he is a scarred and ineffectual young man. A strained relationship with a distant father; a craving for contact with a woman he sees time and time again on his daily bus ride triggers an urge to run away from home.
Manny, too, begins to search for a past he cannot remember. Seeing a photo of the woman on the bus that is pictured on Hank’s cell phone, Manny dreams that it is his own girlfriend. There is a powerfully deep thread of yearning that runs through the film. Neither character knows this woman, yet both occupy a world in which dreams of desire take the place of reality.
And there are other images and ideas, from the banal to the weird, that make Swiss Army Man much more than your standard absurd adolescent comedy or a campy send-up of the genre. No doubt directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert know the film alternately repulses and enthralls. For all its wacky inscrutability, Swiss Army Man is a sui generis trip well worth taking.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.