funny, moving, heartbreaking, electric- I never knew a man and a farting corpse could ever make me feel so much
Swiss Army Man is an utterly unique film, and therefore somewhat difficult to put into words. However, at the same time, it evokes so many feelings in me that once I do find the words – I’ll never be able to stop raving about it. This film was such a success; a fine piece of cinema with an abundance of heart and very little I could find fault in.
The narrative centres on Hank (Paul Dano), a man who is stranded on an island and about to kill himself – but changes his mind when he sees a body wash up on the shore. Managing to use the corpse’s farts to propel them both towards mainland, riding it like a jetski in the process; an epic journey of friendship is ignited when the corpse begins to show signs of life – revealing his name as Manny (Daniel Radcliffe).
The whole film is utterly bizarre. I’m going to say that now and just get it out of the way, because it really is conceptually messed up. However, the strangest elements of the story – such as Manny’s erection being a proverbial compass, and masturbation being used as an analogy for human happiness – seem to be expertly woven into this strange tale. The story is one about so much, and I think that in ways it captures the very essence of what it is to be human: that deep desire to be known and to be loved. It’s a film about profound loneliness, and how just one other soul being there for you can help. It’s about deep friendship and love, and the fact that you sometimes find it in the places you were least expecting to. It’s about connections that make you want to hang on in there and stick at the whole life thing for a little while longer. It’s charming, and endearing, and a beautiful, tragic affair.
These themes are displayed through a number of techniques, and each of them collide in the most extraordinary way, making the film a holistically wonderful experience. The use of cinematography is beautiful; the very opening shots capturing a small boat on the water and managing to frame it so that you really appreciate its minuscule nature in the vast world. There are dozens of beautifully creative shots throughout, with the lighting often being akin to that of a romantic film; capturing and enhancing the real depth of emotion experienced by the protagonist.
The enormity of nature around them highlights their isolation, but it also allows for some of the most interesting and intriguing scenarios and situations and sets to be seen on film. Manny’s body is used as a number of things – he’s a “multi-purpose tool”, a swiss army knife – hence the title. He becomes so much more than just a rigid body, and the way he is paraded round is done so that it’s altogether loving and joyous to watch on screen. In the same way, the trees become so much more than trees – they become a bus for which Manny can imagine his love, they become a house in which they can have a party, they become the people that they are partying with. It’s altogether imaginative and wonderful.
Another element that really draws on the theme of loneliness and helps us connect with Hank is the use of music. The soundtrack has very quickly become one of my favourites in a long while, and it’s because it’s both unique and mystical, and it embodies the film wholeheartedly. Composed by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, the soundtrack is made up of many songs sung a capella. It’s as if this cacophony of voices surround and fill up the screen with their presence, and it is the presence of all these other voices and people that Hank so desperately craves. The fact that it is all founded on vocals rather than music also gives opportunity for the actors themselves to be involved, with Dano and Radcliffe both being utilised on many of the tracks.
Speaking of the two lead actors, they really are the driving force of this film: the reason why it is such a phenomenal watch. Dano is heartbreaking when you feel his loneliness, tender when he is trying to help Manny understand the world, and overwhelmingly touching as he grows to love Manny more and more. Radcliffe is endearing as he asks questions of the world, hilarious as he screams at his ‘freaky’ body, and completely captivating as he explains what he think happiness feels like. Separately, the pair have both outdone so much of their previous work and proven themselves as some of the best actors of their generations. Together, they are transfixing and electric; they have so much chemistry that by the end it is impossible to imagine them apart.
Swiss Army Man is an absolute triumph. If you can get over its weird subject matter, I urge you to watch it and feel yourself smiling, crying, and feeling emotions so full you may actually burst.
Swiss Army Man is out now and distributed by A24 pictures.