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USA 2016
Directed by
Daniel Kwan / Daniel Scheinert
95 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
4 stars

Swiss Army Man

Synopsis: Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on a desert island. Hungry, lonely, bored and without hope, he decides to hang himself. Perched on an esky with a rope around his neck, Hank suddenly spots Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washed up on the shore. Unfortunately, Manny is dead and, if that’s not enough to deal with, he’s also very flatulent; so much so that the gas in his body is able to propel him through the water. Using Manny’s gassy body like a jet ski, Hank makes it back to the mainland. But now he and Manny are lost in the wilderness and as the corpse gradually comes back to life, his gas-fuelled body proves to be useful in numerous ways – almost as useful as a Swiss army knife. Lost and alone, they consider all manner of things relating to life, love and an obsession with a girl on a bus (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).

I will admit to being quite fond of strange and bizarre films that don’t serve up their meaning in formulaic narratives let alone cliché, especially when the thinking they demand of you proves to be worth the effort. As bizarre films go, Swiss Army Man is right up there and, despite being littered with fart and erection gags, manages to rise above the undergraduate level of humour and achieve something quite exceptional.

The bulk of the film relies on the two central performances selling a completely fantastical idea and, to their credit, both Dano and Radcliffe shine in their respective roles, managing to find humour and pathos amongst the weirdness of their situation. Radcliffe, in particular, is very convincing as the partially-deceased Manny and his floppy physicality (CGI aside) is very effective.They set up camp in a small gully littered with dumped rubbish - the discarded evidence of civilisation –and here, Hank tells his story to Manny in the hope of bringing him back to life. Using found objects from both the natural and human worlds, Hank creates some quite beautiful flights of fancy using shadow puppets, effigies, models and costumes in order to illustrate his stories.  It’s magical. As their relationship develops, we learn about Hank’s life – his loneliness, his grief over the death of his mother, his difficult relationship with his father, his social awkwardness and, most of all, his obsession with the girl on the bus.  Of course, the more Hank uses his own stories as a way to bring Manny back to life, the more he actually succeeds in doing just that for himself.

And then there are the Swiss Army Knife capabilities of Manny whose deceased but partially animated body gets put to all manner of uses from the jet propulsion effect of his farts, to his karate chopping firewood, to firing rocks and other projectiles at edible wildlife (plus fending off the occasional bear).. When Hank turns up an old issue of the girlie magazine Sports Illustrated amongst the rubbish, Manny comes to life in quite a different way and, in doing so, reveals the miraculous GPS properties of his erect penis. Like I said, it’s a pretty crazy film.

Whilst feature film is new territory for the team of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert who call themselves ‘Daniels’, this kind of material is not. The pair has worked previously on the short film "Interesting Ball" which uses a bouncing red ball to explore the idea that if the universe is infinite then it follows that the most implausible things are likely to be inevitable (it’s available on Youtube if you’re interested)  Here, though, their theme is a tad more modest, reminding us that no matter how much of a freak you are, you’ll be okay as long as you have just one person who loves you.

The vocal and percussive soundtrack by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell rounds out the style of this film cleverly shifting between the background and being actually performed by the actors, including occasional recaps on the story and a very funny take on John Williams' Jurassic Park theme.   

At times I was reminded of Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep (2006) for its surreal inventiveness or Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich (1999) for the way it takes a totally implausible idea and uses it in a way that is both funny and deeply thoughtful. I can’t say it will be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like your films with a dash of weirdness, then this one could be for you.




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