There’s a scene somewhere (for lack of spoilers I won’t tell you exactly where) in the Daniels’ film, Swiss Army Man, where a group of onlookers observes a scene: one points and laughs, another smiles with some admiration and someone else wrenches their faces in confused shock.
Swiss Army Man is a bit of all three: you’ll laugh, you’ll admire what the film says about life as an experience and you’ll be confused and shocked by what star Daniel Radcliffe endured for the sake of his craft.
This film, as directed by co-directors/screenwriters Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert is, focused from start to finish on its plot of returning Paul Dano’s Hank to a home alluded to in flashbacks and, more subjectively, back to the woman he loves, Sarah Johnson, as portrayed by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. To quote chunks of Jude Dry of Indiewire’s profile on the Daniels’: it’s the duo’s short films that really foreshadow what is shaping up to be their signature style (…) Dogboarding (2011), clever editing turns small dogs into skateboards, much in the way Paul Dano’s character Hank uses Daniel Radcliffe’s Manny (the corpse) as a compass, a weapon, or a lighter. In the minute-long “My Best Friend’s Sweating” (2011), sweat pours out of Scheinert in buckets, eventually spewing from his throat like projectile vomit, an effect used often in Swiss Army Man. Both Puppets (2011) and Pockets (2012) deal with themes of using another body as a tool or inhabiting someone else’s body, raising questions of where the self and the other begin and end. Hank’s projections onto Manny explore the same territory in more depth.
The script, as somewhat reflected in actor Paul Dano’s comment – ‘make(ing) a film where the first fart makes you laugh and the last fart makes you cry’ – to the Los Angeles Times’ Mark Olsen, is equal bits comedy, profound introspection and reflection about life in context of relationships and the infrequent suggestion that the whole film is Hank’s imagination before he starves to death. The survival plot is the film’s throughline from start to finish.
The acting is largely about the advertised dynamic between Paul Dano’s Hank and Daniel Radcliffe’s Manny. The best way to describe how it works, at the risk of gross oversimplification, is mirror-esque and existential-y: where Hank’s prior life is seen and scrutinised by, and against, Manny’s reinvigorated life, innocence and consequent forthrightness about the world. Hank’s response to that is to try and dictate what works as behaviour and what doesn’t.
Resorting (partly) to an earlier Twitter comment, there are two things about the score which really stand out: how it flows from particular character moments, almost on cue as specific protagonists talk or sing, and how choral and chant-heavy it is. This is something different than a wholly electronic or orchestral music score or a full-blown musical as the previous sentence may have implied.
The cinematography, courtesy of director of photography Larkin Seiple, is often crustacean-esque in that it follows the protagonists from a distinctly beach or water-level line of sight looking up at them. Going back to the foreground-background discussion from our The Jungle Book review, there is a shot in this film with the island being looked back upon. Most of the balance is framed to convey lateral or diagonal motion within the frame, stage-like.
The Daniels’ Swiss Army Man is a film that will delight, perplex and shock you all at once without being as extreme as you might otherwise think. If you’re a fan of more existential-y cinema or something left-of-summer-field, Swiss Army Man may just be the thing for you.
(While the opinions and observations cited above are the author’s own, the following sources were used for the facts cited in this article: FilmmakerMagazine.com, IMDb.com, Indiewire.com, LATimes.com)
Plot and Act-by-Act Breakdown:
Plot: A storm-wrecked man seeks the help of a corpse to return to civilisation (and the woman he loves).
Prelude: Various bits of detritus and cobbled-together messages show Hank’s worries.
Act 1: Hank finds Manny’s corpse on the beach and goes to him.
Act 2: Hank escapes the island with Manny; cue cast credits and titles.
Act 3: Hank takes Manny into the woods; finds detritus there.
Act 4: Hank uses Manny’s ‘saliva’ for water and makes him talk; Manny comes to life.
Act 5: Manny’s erection gets Hank exploring deeper parts of the woods.
Act 6: Manny and Hank escape from the heard, but unseen, beast; they fall into a ravine.
Act 7: Hank dresses up as Sarah to jog Manny’s memory enough to help him out further.
Act 8: Manny helps Hank escape the ravine and set up camp in the wilderness.
Act 9: Hank and Manny find and cross the pipeline over the river after causing a section of it to collapse.
Act 10: Hank and Manny decide to make the forest their home; Hank later finds a country road and cellphone coverage.
Act 11: After escaping from a bear into the trees, Manny turns out to be telepathic; Hank begs him to stop causing him to see his recent memories before his eyes.
Act 12: Hank and Manny find Sarah’s home; Manny sees his (renewed) life flash before his eyes and dies upon seeing Sarah in person for the first time.
Act 13: Hank goes back to save Manny from being taken to the morgue; they promptly escape back into the woods and their camp is discovered by the police.
Act 14: Hank is arrested and begins farting to awaken Manny; Manny responds in kind and fart-jetskis away into the horizon.