It’s the call every actor dreams about, when someone asks them, ‘Will you play a farting corpse which has a direction-finding erection?’ The lucky man to get that role was Daniel Radcliffe, who stars as a dead guy dubbed Manny. He’s found washed up on a beach by Hank (Paul Dano), a man stranded on an island whose just about to kill himself. However, discovering Manny starts to change Hank’s perspective – not least because it allows Hank to ride the massively flatulent body back to the mainland.
Although Manny is definitely dead, things take an unexpected turn when he starts to talk, and also reveal other powers that help Hank survive in the wilderness. However, Manny has no memory of his previous existence, so Hank begins to teach him about life and love, and in the process begins to think that perhaps there are things worth living for. That includes a woman whose picture is on a phone, as well as in the growing relationship between Hank and Manny, which moves towards being a romance. Oh, and there’s Manny’s erection, which helps point them in the direction they need to go to.
As Calculon once said in Futurama, ‘I’m not familiar with the type of thing I’m seeing’. It’s an apt description of Swiss Army Man, which from its first five minutes is keen to show viewers that this is not your typical movie. Indeed, it actively avoids simple explanation from beginning to end, sometimes to the verge of being obtuse. That will undoubtedly frustrate some people, especially those who always want to know exactly what’s really going on in a film. Is Manny coming alive just in Hank’s head? Is it real? If he isn’t alive, how do certain things happen, or are they all in Hank’s head too? And if it isn’t real, is it Hank’s conscious fantasy, or does he really think Manny is talking?
Those hoping for a nice clear explanation by the end may be a little frustrated, as although you can basically figure out what’s been going on, it wants to leave a bit of mystery, especially with a kicker in the last few moments. Others will enjoy this though, as it’s a movie that invites the audience in to have their own thoughts, ideas and interpretations of what they’re seeing.
Ultimately, the factual truth is less important that the thematic truth. The semi-romance between a man going through a major mental health crisis (whether Manny is really alive or not, Hank is suicidal) and a dead guy, is actually more about social awkwardness and trying to find value in life than anything else. Hank has always felt out of place and strange, ill at ease in social situations and as if his life is worthless. Most of his reference points are movies, where incredible things can happen, and people can overcome tremendous obstacles (at time Hanks seems semi-aware that he’s essentially making a film in his mind with Manny), but in real life he feels like he is – as his father has often told him – a ‘retard’.
Through Manny, he finds a way to explore his world and his place in it, and whether there is actually the chance of something more – something he can hang on to and make him feel okay. That runs from his desire for true love and the fact his shyness makes him feel like he’ll never have that connection, to his feelings about sex and the world in general. These themes all get a bit muddy towards the end, but for most of the running time it’s handled in a rather fascinating way, so that as Manny and Hank fall in love, it’s as much about Hank falling in love with himself. Likewise, it allows the movie to play with ideas about gender, unrequited love, and to do something film often has difficulty with – exploring the depths of a quiet person’s interior world. The middle third of the film, where the movie is exploring these themes, is absolutely great. It’s funny, smart, bizarre and approaches that rare but exciting thing in cinema, when you’re watching something in wonder.
Although there are a few rough edges and times when the directors’ desire not to follow the expected path could have been toned down for clarity or for the sake of the story – not to mention an ending that never quite feels like it knows what it’s doing – Swiss Army Man is close to being brilliant. You certainly won’t have seen anything quite like it, as it manages to take all of the scatological things that you’d expect of gross-out comedy, and use them effectively for pathos and emotion. It is still funny, but this is very different to pretty much every other film where farting has had such a prominent role.
The Blu-ray includes some decent Special Features, including a look at the creation of the dummy version of Manny, and the practical effects that went into giving the corpse ‘powers’, from being able to be ridden like a jet ski, to being used almost like a machine gun. Those interested in the mechanics of filmmaking will also enjoy the hour-long Q&A with the directors and sound designer. It was filmed at the Dolby Institute, so while it covers a lot of things about the movie, it focuses on the sound, offering a fascinating insight into how movie audiois created. Indeed, many will be surprised at how little of a film’s soundtrack is recorded while the cameras are rolling.
Overall Verdict: Bizarre and sometimes pretty unhinged, but Swiss Army Man is also one step away from being genius. The middle section in particular is brilliant, both funny and surprisingly moving.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac