Sundance 2016: 'Swiss Army Man' is Wacky, Whimsical & Very Unique
by Alex Billington
January 28, 2016
There's no doubt about it - this is a film you're going to either love or hate. Swiss Army Man is one of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival's most divisive films, with some of my fellow critics walking out before they could even finish it. The film is unquestionably unique, I've never seen anything like it, and while it starts out totally wacky everything clicked for me about 30 minutes in. The film opens with Paul Dano playing a man stuck on a deserted island trying to hang himself. But before he can do so, a dead body in a suit (played by Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on shore. Attempting to ignore it, the body begins to fart, then before you know it he's riding this farting body like a jet ski back to land. I told you it's wacky, but actually quite fun.
For the first 20 to 30 minutes, the film is a bit confusing, it's hard to make sense of what is happening. Why is this dead body farting? Why was Paul Dano stuck on an island trying to kill himself? What the heck is going on with these two? Then it all starts to make sense - Swiss Army Man is one big metaphor filled with metaphors that represent the ideas of loneliness and self-esteem. The island at the beginning is Paul Dano's character Hank at his worst - he hates himself so much and feels so lonely that he feels like he's (mentally) stuck on a deserted island in the middle of the ocean. Radcliffe represents the help that allows him to slowly come back to life and start to appreciate himself more, all in pursuit of a girl. Now is it making more sense?
Swiss Army Man is directed by two directors know as "The Daniels" (aka Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert) making their feature debut after working on a number of music videos and short films. Their boundless creativity, originality and inventiveness are on full display with this film. Once Hank and Manny (the dead body) make it back to land, they end up lost in a forest, but learn to progressively work their way out by using whatever they can find around them - mainly trash (lots of it) and natural items (like branches and leaves and rocks). This is where the best moments are found, as they build impressive Michel Gondry-esque vehicles/structures that allow Hank to imagine himself in many situations and improve his mental stability.
Once I started to understand what was going on, that every step of this and every wacky scene was part of a metaphor for self-esteem (and emotional maturity), I started to appreciate it much more. There are a few beautiful scenes in the middle where Hank imagines himself on a bus (that they built in the forest!) and seems so confident that he can actually talk to his dream girl. I loved seeing each and every hand-built creation, The Daniels really outdid themselves with this aspect of the film, it's easily the best part about it. However, as the film continues on it gets to a point where suddenly all this energy and excitement starts to fizzle. Where is all of this leading? Will the finale be as good as the rest of the film after all of this build up?
Sadly, the answer is no. The ending is the worst part. I won't spoil it, but it's rather a creepy and awkward twist that just doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the film. Maybe I missed the point or maybe they somehow lost track of what they were trying to say at this point in the film. Whatever the case, it felt so unsatisfying and disconnected from everything else being said that it left a bad taste in my mouth. I love so much of the film and connected with so much of it, that I really wish the ending was better. It's so refreshingly unique with inventive visual aspects that it can't be written off. I'm very curious to see what The Daniels do next. In the meantime, if you want to see Radcliffe give an excellent performance as a corpse, this is worth watching.
Alex's Sundance 2016 Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing