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Sundance Review: The Daniels’ Heartfelt ‘Swiss Army Man’ is a Zany Existentialist Buddy Comedy

Sundance Review: The Daniels' Heartfelt 'Swiss Army Man' is a Zany Existentialist Buddy Comedy

Finite and unrecoverable, that’s what our time on this earth
is. Mortality comes with the default set of traits for mankind, and such
unalterable realization about our expiration date should, in theory, encourage
people to live fully before facing the ultimate goodbye. In the Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert)
uncompromising and highly singular debut feature, “Swiss Army Man,” the
restrains that societal codes place on human happiness and our desire to seek
fulfillment is explored through the improbable friendship between an apparent
castaway and another young man’s corpse. The film’s idiosyncratic premise
delivers on its promise to be an unorthodox narrative and fittingly showcases
the natural evolution of the director’s talents seen previously in their commercial
and music video work.

Disheveled and visibly distressed, Paul Dano plays Hank, a
man stranded on an island and on the brink of suicide whose life is spared
where a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore. Initially Hank is ecstatic
thinking perhaps this encounter could ensue into being rescued, but as the
decomposing and farting body begins to convulse, he decides riding the deceased
body is his best bet. Once on the mainland and given purpose by his new
companion (a la “Son of Saul” but in a much lighter context), Hank embarks on a
mission to return to civilization – where there might not be much room for him
or the corpse.

Eventually, in a magical realist and evidently absurdist
turn, the dead man reveals his name is Manny, and though he is not very
articulate (as most characters who come back from the death, aka zombies, are),
his presence pushes Hank to self-analyze the choices that brought him to this
surreal point in his life. But Manny also has a story of his own, one that Hank
pieces together by questioning his stiff pal about the photos of a pretty girl
in his cell phone.

Rapidly earning each other’s trust, both characters confide
their painful regrets and unlikely aspirations, at least from their limited
perspective, hoping to find strength in their mutual solitude and alienation.
Surely, such introspective observations are adorned by fart noises aplenty and intricate
discussions about masturbation. As the plot unfolds and nature challenges them,
Manny’s physique truly becoming a multipurpose tool that includes a penis that
serves as compass, gallons of fluid that keep Hanks from dehydrating, and a
gas-propelled escape vehicle.

As scatological as it might sound, and it will certainly be
found off-putting by segments of the audience, “Swiss Army Man” is as heartfelt
as it’s inhibited in its way to approach such a unique central relationship.
Vibrant montages that are simultaneously hilarious and life affirming becomes
incredibly transporting moments that induce reflection even in this wild
universe. Beneath the eccentric silliness that might come across at first, the
Daniels’ deal with existence as a fleeting concept that should not be bound by
moral regulations if these get in the way of experiencing happiness. Holding in
a fart fearful of what the rest of the world might think is, to the human
spirit, as hurtful as never expressing ones feelings to those we care for or
never taking a chance against the odds.

Radcliffe’s character comes from beyond the grave not simply
to be a practical asset, but to teach Hank once we die all the inconsequential worries
and insignificant concerns that held us back while alive are meaningless. In
Manny’s naïve view of the world, if it doesn’t bring you joy why do it and if
it does make you happy why not do it? Insecurity and self-doubt run rampant
between these two, but the filmmakers never let the film dive into a sappy
mood. The outrageous gags have an experimental dance with the more existentialist
thematic that makes for a tonal mosaic that is hard to qualify.

Each in his respective demanding role, Dano and Radcliffe
dive wholeheartedly into this two-hander that only offers them the great
outdoors, their emotional predicaments, and a separate dreamy realm constructed
by Hank to replicate what Manny’s life could be once they get back home. These
sequences are by far the most memorable and ambiguous instances. Hank, in order
to motivate Manny to help him find the right path to the nearest town, creates
a hand-made playground where they can pretend to be the men they were not in
the real world. Hank dresses as a raggedy version Sarah, a girl Manny saw on
the bus and fell head over hills for, and together they imagine what could be
possible if, for once, their negative perceptions about themselves wouldn’t
stop them from trying to pursue the unknown.

Dano dribbles between being a confident mentor to his
rotting ally and feeling as unworthy as he does. It’s a subtle performance for
the most when compared to Radcliffe’s otherworldly work, but it offers an
emotional anchor that helps the more flamboyant elements roll out in a somewhat
smooth fashion. Radcliffe’s endearing take on an inexplicably resurrected man comes
with a moving innocence of a child who is looking at the world for the first
time. This is a role that could lose its loving qualities in someone else’s
hands, or body, given how the film operates, but Radcliffe pulls it off. He is
by far the warmest flatulent, talking cadaver to have ever appeared on screen.  

Given that The Daniels’ primary inclination is to push
narrative boundaries blending gross-out comedy, fantastic philosophy, and inventive
takes on conventional relationships here, there are unanswered questions that,
though they don’t subtract from the uniqueness of the piece, might leave some
viewers perplexed and wondering what the rules of this story are. The final act
takes a shift that organically matches what the filmmakers have been setting up
through the journey, and reinforces the ambiguity and their fondness of
choosing visceral qualities over orthodox storytelling. For them, it seems in “Swiss Army Man,” regret is the
product of guilt and poisonous thoughts, which, like fart ,must be released for
one to ride into the sunset.

It’s safe to say “Swiss Army Man” will benefit from the relevance
of its leads regarding distribution prospects. It doesn’t lack mass appeal, but
it the seemingly juvenile nature of its humor will undoubtedly earn it some
detractors. However, for hose on the Daniels peculiar wavelength it should be a
satisfying unusual treat. 

“Swiss Army Man” premiered Friday January 23, 2016 at the Eccles Theater during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. The film is currently seeking distribution.

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