Swiss Army Man is a strange movie. It’s not just because it’s a movie about Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse. It’s not just because it’s a buddy comedy about two men, one of which happens to be dead. It’s a strange movie because it’s not about what you think it’s about. I’ll try to do this without too many spoilers but reader beware.
On a surface level, Swiss Army Man is a surprisingly lovely film. The direction and cinematography are sharp, and the accompanying a Capella soundtrack is great. There are overly warm visuals, along with some lens flaring, that give moments a heavy Instagram feel, but that seems completely intentional and when paired with the macabre material it plays with twee, rather than succumbs to it. The soundtrack, too, dances on the edge of saccharine but manages to keep balance with irony, weaving in samples of dialogue, sound effects, and commentary regarding the current on-screen actions. The Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) show off a deft skill at manipulating the audience, which is pretty important with a movie like this. No other directors come to mind who could so easily hold the tonal tension that allows the audience to finding Hank (Paul Dano) and Manny’s (Radcliffe) relationship endearing. The Daniels never fall on the overly sweet stylized side of Wes Anderson, nor does it have the underlying harshness of James Gunn. They manage to cast a romantic spell over the audience that managed to keep me on board for their bizarre trip.
Dano and Radcliffe also do a superb job with their performances. Dano is endearing in a way I haven’t seen him perform before. Usually he has a sullen edge to characters the belie an anger. In Swiss Army Man there’s more sadness in his portrayal than angst. One would think Radcliffe would have little to do with the role of being a corpse, but he gives a great performance. His physicality is perfect and the few lines he does have are given a heartbreaking naiveté. Through the film Hank finds uses for Manny’s physical abilities. There’s the jet-ski fart, the fresh water throat geyser, and many other stranger bodily functions. Also, for each bit of usefulness Manny finds in death, the more interested he becomes in life. It’s a great way of weaving together fart and dick jokes with character development.
SOMEWHAT SPOILERS AFTER HERE
Most reviews made sure to point out that the final act takes a strange and darker turn. Some people reacted to this negatively, feeling that the movie hadn’t built to that moment and it broke with the story that had been established. I had the same response initially. There’s a huge tone shift, and much of what we’ve learned about the characters so far is turned upside down.
Is this is a betrayal? Yes, but it’s supposed to be. That romantic spell I mentioned before? It was a lie and The Daniels sold it perfectly. The movie presents itself as a buddy flick, a bit of a romantic comedy, and a bromance. But that’s all from the perspective of Hank. When viewed through the eyes of another character, Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), it’s a much darker story. Sarah is referenced throughout the film, so she’s not a last-minute introduction. But Sarah as a person, rather than a concept, is a latecomer. Sarah by way of Hank and Manny is a plot device. Sarah by way of Sarah is a person with a family and emotions. In truth, the shift in the last act is what Swiss Army Man is really all about: unaddressed mental illness and objectification of women. That uncomfortable dissonance? That’s what happens when a woman’s story is told by the men around her and then shown everything they’ve been missing. In storytelling, the woman is often a Macguffin, a plot point to be achieved. This is the case for the first two acts of the movie. It’s only during the discomfiting end that we get a fair recounting of events. Hank is delusional, and therefore so is his narration. Interestingly, while he may be delusional regarding Manny, the important delusion is how he thinks of his relationship with Sarah. But this slanted recounting is what happens to anyone’s story when their own input is taken away or ignored. If the ending doesn’t seem to fit, it’s because Hank and Sarah’s personal stories never actually matched up with each other.
Digging further, there’s another layer. We’ve been following Hank and have come to see his range of emotions and motivations. We know him too well to hate him. That’s what makes the turn so hard to accept. But in telling the story from his side and then showing us what we, and he, have been missing, it humanizes him as well. His actions never come from a cruel place. They come from a place of helplessness and abandonment. There a larger context given to both parties. Sarah is a victim of an individual, while Hank is the victim of a system, or more accurately the lack of a support system.
The ending broke, and subsequently made, the movie’s experience for me. It went from really good to terrible to great. So with that in mind, your mileage may vary. But the only thing truly broken in this movie are the characters. The film itself does an amazing job at bringing out the humanity in everyone. For a movie that heavily features a magical penis, vomiting rocket-launcher, karate-chop action, and jet-farts, The Daniels do a magnificent job of exposing the pain of the human condition.