Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Movie Review: Swiss Army Man (2016)



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Um… how in the holy name of fuck do I introduce a movie like this? At this point, this film’s reputation is well established, and yet I am unable to initially add much that doesn’t just involve me breaking down and ask “What the hell am I watching?” over and over and over again. To make things weirder, this film might actually have merit beyond its well-publicized oddities. How? Well, let’s get started and I’ll hopefully be able to explain why. This is Swiss Army Man.


The plot: Hank (Paul Dano), marooned on a desert island, is about ready to shuffle off the mortal coil when a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on shore. After using the decomposing body’s flatulence as a makeshift boat to get off the island… you know, I could literally say anything after a statement like that and it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference. But whatever; Hank, after discovering the dead body’s surprising amount of usefulness in the wild, starts to bond with him, naming him Manny. However, as surreal as things already are, they have only just begun as it seems that, while Hank is talking to the dead body, it seems to be responding in kind.

The cast list is small, which is hardly surprising considering the kind of story this is. No, not because of the subject matter; rather, because the framing of said story is relatively small. Dano basically carries the film (almost literally) on his back for a lot of the running time, and credit to the crown prince of the indie flick because he gives this weirdly fitting innocence and even a touch of tragedy to what would normally be just about the most pitiful lead character of any film this year. Now, considering what his character is, I feel a little off even mentioning this but Radcliffe is also really good in this. Yeah, don’t let the whole “he’s literally playing a corpse” thing fool you; as the film carries on, he manages to go from being particularly game for some strange body function humour to being on the other end of what is actually a pretty epic bromance. He also delivers his character’s very blunt and unintentionally sarcastic dialogue with great precision, working with lines that could have been outright creepy in lesser hands.

I’ve mentioned before how I have a certain taste for the stranger sectors of cinema. Well, it seems like that is being put through the ultimate test on this one because, good God, this is up to its neck in all kinds of bizarre. Actually, it says something that the main idea of a guy dragging around a flatulent corpse who doubles as a water fountain, jet ski, machine gun and flint ends up becoming one of the more normal things about this movie. Okay, I mean that as in their relationship starts to become a bit more understandable once it gets to the point of Manny talking back to him. Instead, it ends up being the scenarios that they put themselves in that makes this weird. Once the words being spoken go from monologue to dialogue, they start talking about pretty much the basic aspects of life from sex to food to sex to pooping to sex to romance to sex and so on. To say that the conversations can get awkward is as much of an understatement as saying this film’s premise is only slightly out of the ordinary. Hank is basically teaching Manny all about life (again) and that ends up leading to the kind of topics that parents utterly dread discussing with their kids. Not so much because they’re too difficult to talk about; it’s just that the responses and further questions that they raise can range wildly from the annoyingly basic to the abstractly confusing. Except for whatever reason, be it the acting, the premise, the way these conversations are aligned with each other, or maybe all three with a few more for good measure, this actually works. Just thinking about the premise makes me go all T-Rex cringe, and yet the film itself doesn’t.

Maybe that’s because, behind all the weirdness, there are definite smarts at play here. From the opening scene, this film sets up the two main themes that end up carrying the film from then on: A morbid sense of humour and a learned sense of isolation. Given how we start on man about to hang himself leading to farting jet ski, this manages to maintain that brand of comedy far better than probably any bodily-function-gag reliant film I’ve seen in years. What makes it work as well as it does is that its approach to death is achingly poignant, something made even clearer by how readily it is able to make jokes about it without coming across as just reaching for outrage. As for the isolation, well, keep in mind that we’re watching a man who was marooned on an island and about ready to end it all… until a corpse just happens to wash up on the same island. Regardless of how genuine the events of the film are in terms of reality, that feeling of desperation for human contact, any human contact, is kind of embarrassing in how relatable it is. It may be taken to an extreme, but no further an extreme than what the film starts on to begin with. From there, the film looks into the basic mechanics of human interaction with Manny serving as a Swiss army knife for the subtext as well, as his and Hank’s interactions start to mirror each other in rather interesting ways. Socializing can be incredibly difficult and the source of more problems than it solves, but at the end of the day, we all need to do it. It really says something when you have a story this incredibly niche, and yet what is told within that story is quite universal and human in the emotions it touches upon.

While the film’s innards may be the clever hidden under a layer of the confounding, it’s the use of sound that ends up making things feel the strangest. And no, this has nothing to do with the professionally-mixed fart noises that appear early on and then just disappear thanks to a wine cork (and you know a film is weird when you’re surprised that it doesn’t show things like that in detail). Rather, I’m talking about the soundtrack and how fascinating its construction is. Aside from a few complete songs and Hank and Manny singing a few numbers, including a weirdly resonant cover of Cotton-Eyed Joe of all bloody things, the music here is largely made up of layered acapella arrangements. You’ll hear Hank making a noise, or even breathing, and then that gets looped and more noises get added to it, along with a few bits of harmonizing and the rare inclusion of an actual instrument. The end result is this incredibly cerebral experience that, much like the time transitions in Wild, make it feel like we’re hearing what is going on in Hank’s head at times. It’s that isolation motif again, where the innate requirement for human interaction and hearing a familiar sound coming from a human frame manifests itself as Hank, once again, listening to himself.

All in all, it’s strange, it’s perplexing and the feeling of mindfrag is in potentially overwhelming amounts, and yet the weirdness never ends up overtaking the film’s definite technical and emotional chops. It’s stories like this that highlight why we describe those who are regularly interact with other people as having a healthy social life, or those who regularly engage in the good old genital IKEA instructions as having a healthy sex life: Because they are core elements of life itself, and it can barely feeling like living at all if one or both are absent. It probably helps that this film ends up summarizing its own audience for us: Most of us will just get a cheap laugh out of the fart jokes, while others will feel the emotion because they know that, under the bloated and presumably dead organs of the premise, there is something surprisingly, achingly and unmistakably human. I’m ranking higher than The Hateful Eight, which I primarily enjoy as a well-written acting exercise more than anything else; here, the way that the various production elements synchronize with each other is really quite astounding. However, even with how much I was able to emotionally vibe with this feature, it didn’t quite reach the level of post-watching hypertension that Spotlight’s more reality-invading moments offered.

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