Accepting Magic, Reluctantly
The sad caucasian male aged 25-40 is the exhausted figurehead to so many critics’ darlings these days that it’s hard to convince myself to pay admission to any of them anymore. From Spike Jonze’s wistful “Her (2013)” to Kaufman’s meditation on narcissism “Anamolisa” (2015), it seems like white guys just can’t catch a break. So when Daniels’ “Swiss Army Man” opened up with Hank (played by Paul Dano, previously the Nietzechean “bummed teenager” in “Little Miss Sunshine”) hanging himself from a tree on a remote island, a part of me cringed. Yes, it’s a throwback to Hal Ashby’s OG “suicidal teen” in “Harold and Maude” (1971) (which was made before the suicidal teen was a trope and before you could poke fun at them), but really? Are we going down this road yet again?
Well, no. And that’s a big no for “Swiss Army Man,” which treats its first act like a Knox Cube test for the audience. It seemingly goes nowhere, it’s demonstratively wordless, and tests your endurance with a repetitive flatulence gag. For all intents and purposes, this is not how you should start your film, let alone your film career, as directing duo Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert do. But if you’re patient enough to hear Daniel Radcliffe (three Dans now, keep up) utter his first words, you can rest assured the remaining acts are quite rewarding.
“Swiss Army Man” is a kind of epistle to imagination in a rather unimaginative time in cinema. Stripped down to practically one location and a handful of actors, Daniels set out to challenge the viewers, their characters, and their audience into reconsidering the boundaries of our own playful existence. It reduces to a fine boil just how much can be done with very little. Despite the well crafted effects and gags, it’s steeped in a no-frills style of showmanship. It breaks down the narrative to the essentials almost like a…umm…swiss army knife.
Despite its reductive approach, the characters and their world are deceivingly deep and complex. Our hero Hank wants to live to see another day for Sarah (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a woman he’s made into his phone wallpaper and whom he thinks he loves. The key word here being “thinks.” And it’s that drive which brings his counterpart Manny back to life to help him. I say “thinks” because upon the second act, we discover Sarah is a mere sketch, mostly sinewed by Hank’s own imagination of her. In the third act, we not only discover Sarah doesn’t know Hank, but that she has a family of her own.
Speaking of Hank, “Swiss Army Man” reminded me of Tom Hanks’ brilliant one-man show in “Cast Away” (2000), where a forlorn ex-delivery man resigns to imagining his best friend is a volleyball manifest. Except in “Swiss Army Man” it’s a dead guy and there is no love in his life waiting safely on the shore, simply the love of his own life. Yes, “Swiss Army Man” borrows openly from some of the best “stuck on a desert island” parables: the first act is akin to Shindo’s “Naked Island” (1960) in its quiet meditation, the tribalism of a “Lord of the Flies” adaption creeps its head out when they discover their magic, and even the duplicitous unreliable markings of this decade’s “Shutter Island” (2010) when the two return to reality.
For Daniels, reality isn’t hard or unpleasant, it’s just more sober, more sane. Daniels’ characters survival is predicated on the opposite, on the willingness to disavow the normalcy. That’s the spine to this film and I think the reason this debut is infused with so much energy and love. Here are two young artists who seem to be working within an industry of corpses disguised as big-budget sequels, prequels and franchises - as cleverly personified by the all-encompassing ex-Harry Potter masthead - and yet they want to bring the medium back to life, despite just how insane that may appear.
How these characters survive (a sparse diet of Cheetos and game meat), how Hank’s phone still maintains battery life, or how a corpse can double up as a slingshot are all besides the point. Leave reality at the door. But that isn’t to say don’t confront reality because if I were to dissect this story into three acts, it’d be:
1. A reluctant acceptance of reality (corpses do in fact pass gas long after their dead)
2. A departure from reality and entrance into imagination and magic
3. The return to reality with said magic.
And the third act is one of the funniest confrontations between reality and fantasy I’ve seen in quite sometime, along with one of the more daring. It’d have been easy for them to adopt a pathos with an approval of reality just as it would have been easy to surrender to absolute whimsy. They do neither. The ending comfortably disappoints those who can’t jump aboard the magical train and those who stayed at the station after the first fart.
What audacity for a pair who’ve been working chiefly in the commercial world. It feels like they’ve been wanting to make this movie for a long time and it certainly shows in every scene. I fear this film won’t get enough word of mouth because if you really try to sell the concept, it sounds absurd: a suicidal man stranded on an island discovers a magical corpse he brings to life to return him home.
When I asked a close friend of mine whether I should see it, I was stifled by his response. Is it a low-brow film? A fantasy? A buddy comedy?
“It’s a lot of farts and bonkers. But it’s really beautifully done.”
Those two descriptions don’t usually fall in suit.
“It may bring up thoughts of intimacy.”
Are we talking about the same film?
“Yes, it’s absurd.”
Very absurd. But instead of quietly skirting the line of absurdity and earnestness (Richard Ayoade’s “The Double” (2013) and Lanthimos’ “The Lobster” (2015) come to mind), it wears its silliness in bold primary colours. What joy that they can explore the ideas of love, survival and companionship on the big screen.
There’s an importance to making a kids film for adults. Bear in mind this is an R-rated film. I’m almost positive in thinking that the studios probably wanted to cut this down to receive a PG rating. It has the makings of one: the Harry Potter lead, the fantastical effects, and the buddy comedy form. But its dark subject matter and sexuality most definitely denied such acceptance. Why is it that when a director makes a comedy for adults, it’s usually stripped away from any of the imagination, the magic? With the exception of Edgar Wright, there’s no one playing in that arena. More stories need to awaken the children in the adults without catering completely to the infantilized market (i.e every wonderful Pixar film).
The island which Hank and Manny reside upon is an unfortunate analogy for the island these types of films get bound to. Little chance for survival and yet ripe with possibility.
Manny and Hank develop a relationship over the sparse 93 minutes that rival most romantic comedies in film. Their bond made stronger by the fact that they both want to live in a world that might accept them. Acceptance is a major theme throughout. Not just accepting each other, but accepting their fears, desires and yes…their flatulence. It’s an idea that strikes me as very personal for the Daniels, who markedly forged their way in their careers as weirdos, misfits. They had to accept their own shared insanity in order to thrive in an otherwise safe, placid industry which seems to have forgotten how to believe in a bit of magic.