The farting, talking, singing corpse movie is the best movie of the year.
That’s not a sentence I ever expected to write in my entire life, let alone this month. Even stranger, it’s a sentiment that seems to be increasingly echoed as more and more people see this movie. We live in strange and uncertain times, with changes occurring daily, and yet our popular culture is remarkably stuffed with “sameness.” The most popular television show at the moment happens to be a riff on Tolkien with added boobies, the most popular recording artists are updated versions of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, and at the box office this weekend there’s a sequel to a twenty year old movie and yet another adaptation of a story from 1912. Even the more artistic, braver films out right now could be described as a sequel toJaws, a remake of Beyond The Valley of the Dolls and a John Carpenter pastiche. Don’t get me wrong; all of these works are ones that I at least respect and most I completely love, but I say this to illustrate how rare true originality is. A completely original work of art is a diamond in the rough, a template from which endless derivatives and imitators and conquering works and entire artistic movements are drawn from. The longer an artistic medium is around, the less opportunity there is for innovation. Many pundits like to throw around the old “cinema is dead” chestnut, and you’d be forgiven sometimes for believing that’s true. But now, that opinion has been officially refuted. Cinema only appears deceased and rotting, but it breathes, it sings, it discovers new forms and functions and most beautifully of all, it farts. Swiss Army Man has brought it back to life.
Describing Swiss Army Man is a harder task then most, not just due to the film’s bizarre nature but also the fact that it’s innovations are so delightful that ruining them would be a disservice. Here’s my attempt at it: a young man, Hank (Paul Dano) has somehow ended up on the world’s loneliest, smallest, most isolated deserted island, and has been there seemingly a while. About to end it all by hanging himself, at the last minute he sees the corpse of Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washed up on the shore. Hoping for help or at least a friend, he rushes over only to find that Manny is indeed as dead as he seems. But then, a miracle happens: Manny starts farting. And these expulsions become steady and powerful enough for Hank to tie a tether to Manny’s body and ride him all the way back to shore. Finding actual civilization further away then he hoped, Hank treks forward, as Manny miraculously becomes ever more alive and more useful, all at once becoming Hank’s child, confidant, friend, true love, and multi-purpose tool. If any of the above sounds appealing to you, drop what you’re doing and go see the film immediately. If you’re still skeptical, keep reading.
The film is the brainchild of co-writers/directors Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) and it’s their first feature film after having made a name for themselves making short films and music videos (including “Turn Down For What”). It’s impossible for me to overstate what masters they are at orchestrating and balancing theme and tone, the way that their work is able to birth such absurd and ridiculous visuals and yet have everything feel grounded. Swiss Army Man has a new visual idea or insane twist or non-sequitur line of dialogue in every single scene and not once does it feel disjointed. That’s likely due to the stellar work done by cinematographer Larkin Seiple, who crafts an idyllic, sunny palette of greens and blues that assures that the film never becomes a dour slog, even in darker scenes set at night. Working in tandem is sound designer Andrew Twite and his team, which at every point of the film keep the proceedings grounded, a hugely important element when things happen like, oh, say, Manny is used as a grappling hook. The glue that holds the entire film together, though, is the masterful score by two members of indie rock group Manchester Orchestra, Andy Hull and Robert McDowell. Using the concept that Hank and Manny wouldn’t have access to any instruments besides their voices and some rudimentary percussion, the entire score is acapella, and half of it is actually sung by Dano and Radcliffe. If you’ve ever heard acapella music then you know how rich, big, and full it can sound, and that quality is ever present here. Like the film itself, the score is playful and majestic and odd and sad and ultimately beautiful. Just to reiterate, I’m still talking about the movie where Daniel Radcliffe’s boner is used as a literal compass.
Speaking of Harry’s Potter, the two leads are uniformly excellent in the film. Indeed, nearly the entire movie rests on their shoulders, and if the two actors weren’t friends before the movie they surely must be now if the chemistry onscreen is any indication. Paul Dano as Hank is closer to his indie dramedy work in films like Ruby Sparks and Love & Mercy, though he’s able to color his performance with shades of the consummate creeps he’s played so well in There Will Be Blood and Prisoners. As a result, the film is never fully taking Hank’s side, finding him pathetic and sympathetic in equal measure. Equally ambiguous is Daniel Radcliffe as Manny, insofar as to the wherefores and whys of his miraculous resurrection. The film never wants to answer the question of whether Manny is real or not, and yet within that question Radcliffe makes Manny completely and totally believable. Starting with Buster Keaton-esque Weekend At Bernie’s style physical comedy, Radcliffe makes Manny a figure of innocence and pathos, eventually corrupted by the harsh realities of the world. It’s a performance that should bring to a close any lingering “just that Harry Potter guy” criticisms of Radcliffe’s career, as he’s bonafide and then some. Put simply, the film wouldn’t work without these two.
For me, the greatest quality of Swiss Army Man is its enormous depth, a quality I can’t quite talk about in detail as my aim in this review is to convince you to see the film in theaters rather then to spoil it. Suffice to say that at each and every turn I was shocked at how poignant, truthful and thoughtful it was, and at no point did it become pretentious or twee. It goes to places that you’d think a film like this may not be brave enough to go, and I haven’t even mentioned the fantastic work of Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a mysterious object of affection or the fact that indie wunderkind Shane Carruth (of Primer and Upstream Color notoriety) shows up in a cameo role. As I did in the beginning of this review with other works, Swiss Army Man could indeed be compared to prior movies, as there’s elements of the films of Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry to be found here. As fantastic as those films are, though, they tend to have a preciousness and intellectualistic bent to them as well as a large helping of cynicism. I adore Being John Malkovich, but there’s some people I would not recommend it to. I wholeheartedly recommend Swiss Army Man to just about everyone because it is devoid of cynicism completely. That doesn’t mean it’s not sad, or wistful, or even melancholic, but that it is a film that embraces rather then wades in these themes. The film has tons to say and wishes to engage, but it doesn’t care if you like it or not. It presents the scatological and the sublime in equal measure. It is wholly unique and assured in that identity. Swiss Army Man, the film and the character, just wishes to be accepted and loved. I urge you to do so.
This article originally appeared on Pixcelation.com on July 5th, 2016.