Swiss Army Man is a difficult film to watch. Not for reasons pertaining to it’s “weird” or “surreal” qualities, but more to do with the poorly developed script, which subtly manages to sustain a malignant sense of insensitivity and stupidity for the film’s duration. The premise of the film is based around deadbeat Hank (Paul Dano) who is trying to commit suicide while stranded on a desert island, when the body of a man (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on the beach. Of course things don’t go as planned and (guffaw, guffaw) an outrageous buddy comedy ensues. Conceptually the film is interesting, and the trailer set it up as having the potential to become an unique piece of modern cinema.
We start off with a dozen Porky’s worth of fart jokes. In an interview with NPR the directors suggested they wished to set the bar low at the beginning of the film, and work their way up. Perhaps they worked their way sideways instead. As the story unfolds, Dano’s “alive” character, Hank, tries to teach Manny, Radcliffe’s “dead” character, about love and life with a series of visually inventive set pieces, based around the alive character’s infatuation with a woman (Sarah, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead). As the plot develops we realise the alive character doesn’t actually know Sarah, and has been stalking her. He makes grand statements about love: “nobody should have to ride the bus alone”, therefore reducing Sarah to an object of his desire, without so much as showing an inkling of trying to understand her at all. At no point in the film, not even at the end when he actually meets her, is he admonished for his inappropriate stalking. Don’t forget that this stalking plot line carries the entire narrative of the film. He is trying to get “home” so he can show her he loves her. In reality she is a mother and partner, her Instagram account shows this, but somehow our alive character misses these facts.
The film is deeply rooted in juvenile humour, the infamous “farting corpse” being the prime example, but the most telling aspect of this unsophisticated take on what it means to be a man in the 21st century is the heavily repressed nature of Hank. He is a deeply ashamed human, belittled by his friends and family. As he attempts to teach the dead Manny about love, he begrudgingly dresses in drag and role plays as Sarah, the woman he is stalking. At one point he dejectedly remarks about what the people at home would think of him if they could see him dressed as a woman.
While he does become somewhat comfortable in the role of the woman, the film misses a huge opportunity to develop the character outside of social norms. The film fails in making anything more than a fart joke at the expense of the identities of the many who don’t fit into the traditional gender binary. The repressed alive character falls in love with the dead character, while role playing as the stalked woman. Here we want the alive character to break free of his repression and to embrace who he really seems to be. There is some homoerotic subtext, the characters kiss at one point, but this potentially interesting plot point becomes buried by the alive character’s rejection of his feelings, reinstated by his imaginary love of the woman he stalks.
The directing team known as Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheiner) have created a story to showcase their adeptness at producing visually interesting stunts and scenarios, and are very good at that aspect. This film should have been broken down into a couple of music videos and they probably would have been good. Kwan and Scheiner desperately want their film to be seen in the same light as the works of Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze, but fail wholeheartedly at capturing the otherworldliness that those two directors seem to effortlessly invoke. The fact that the story is non-sensical isn’t an issue for me. The unsophisticated development of the characters is. At one point the alive character attempts to discuss love by showing the dead character photos of women in bikinis, leading to another plot point – the dead man’s erection becomes the divining rod to guide them back to civilisation. One can only imagine how hilarious the Daniels team thought they were being while writing this script. Compare Swiss Army Man to the works of Quentin Dupieux for a moment. Dupieux’s sublime Rubber exists similarly in a bizarre world in which anything can happen. Dupieux’s subtlety and nuance allows his surrealist narrative strangeness to live and breathe. The Daniels lack of nuance makes one feel like they have been smashed over the head for an hour and a half as an excuse to create some “magical realism”. Undoubtedly Swiss Army Man will be a hit for those looking for something “interesting” but ultimately it is a deeply disappointing film. The trailer is a better standalone film than the completed work. I’d strongly suggest staying home and enjoying the works of Dupieux instead. Or read a book. Or stare at the wall.
Images © 2016 Ironworks Productions, LLC
SWISS ARMY MAN is showing exclusively at Cinema Nova from July 14