Sundance 2016: Swiss Army Man, by David Bax
Swiss Army Man is the kind of movie that will be glibly summed up with a description that diminishes it but will likely garner enough attention to get people talking. So, when you hear someone refer to the “Daniel Radcliffe’s farting corpse” movie, know that (while that is very much accurate), they are actually talking about a work that is filled with beauty and an awe at the primal basics of both physical and emotional survival in the modern world.
Paul Dano stars as Hank, a young man who has survived a maritime mishap only to find himself stranded on a tiny island off the coast of the U.S. One day, on the verge of suicide, he finds a dead body (Radcliffe) washed up on the shore. Propelled by the stiff’s flatulence, he more or less jet skis to the coast. Still with no idea where he is, Hank and the increasingly talkative and cognitive cadaver have to survive in the woods, searching for civilization while Hank teaches his new friend (whom he calls Manny) about life and humanity and what will be expected of him in the society of which he has no memory.
Once ashore, Hank and Manny find themselves in nature, yes, but also among the cumulative garbage of Western society. Food wrappers, magazines, tattered garments and other detritus litter the forest floor and it doesn’t take Hank and Manny or us too long to make the connection that they are not unlike the refuse that surrounds them. Swiss Army Man is preoccupied with the more disgusting aspects of human existence (Manny’s constant farts are just the surface) but there’s a purpose to the sophomoric wallowing. Being human means being a sack of flesh filled with fluid and organs that occasionally and suddenly perform odd tasks, like the manic erections Manny experiences while gazing at magazine photos of bikini girls.
Adding to both the strangeness and the beauty of Swiss Army Man is the fact that it’s also a bit of a musical. Hank and Manny both repeatedly break into songs made of melodic mouth sounds which are then lifted into the lilting and soaring score itself. The composers are Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of Manchester Orchestra (though Dano’s high register is often more reminiscent of Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle) and they mix their simple but moving original compositions with a pastiche of pop culture earworms like “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and the Jurassic Park theme, both also sung by Dano and Radcliffe.
All of this high-concept absurdism in a semi-magical forest ends up being a surprisingly effective way to examine modern life from a clear distance. Hank doesn’t just have to explain to Manny what it is to be alive and have a home and get erections, he also struggles to define contemporary mores like why masturbation is shameful. Not to mention, he has to answer the difficult question we all ponder, “What is Netflix?” In looking at all of these questions, Swiss Army Man finds, amidst the crass juvenilia, a wholehearted belief in the gorgeous importance of life.