The Daniels’ feature debut ‘Swiss Army Man’ cuts deep with humanity

Joyce Kim/Courtesy
"Swiss Army Man" | A24
Grade: A

“Our first response was to laugh, then we were like ‘we can’t make this movie, it’s a terrible idea and it doesn’t deserve to exist,’” director Daniel Kwan said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “But I think because of that knee-jerk reaction, that sort of self-censoring that happens so quickly, it forced us to ask why? And why not?”

The film Kwan is referring to is a miracle of a film, “Swiss Army Man.” Directed by a duo collectively known as the Daniels (Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) the film has been labeled the “farting corpse movie with Daniel Radcliffe” ever since it premiered at Sundance, where the duo won Best Director despite having as many walk-outs as it had raves.

What makes the film a “love it-or-hate it experience” is apparent right from the first gorgeously-lensed shot of the film. As the stranded and solitary Hank (Paul Dano, who proves he can do any role convincingly) is about to hang himself on a tiny island, a farting corpse named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe, in his best performance yet) floats onto shore. From here, Hank realizes he can use Manny’s flatulence to ride him like a jet ski from the island to the closest inland coast to save himself and so he does. And with this absurd, yet somehow beautifully uplifting sight gag between the highbrow (questions about existence) and the lowbrow (fart noises), the film becomes a unique cinematic masterpiece that will surely get anyone who sees it discussing the craziness and total originality they just witnessed.

“It takes a certain level of a strange version of empathy to dive deep into something that you are repulsed by,” Kwan explained. “And I think that’s why we thought fart jokes were an interesting place to start. It’s the lowest common denominator form of humor, no one respects the fart joke.”

While everyone will talk about the endless farts that populate the first 20 minutes of the movie (until Hank finds a wine cork to prevent the constant release of gas), “Swiss Army Man” actually morphs into a tale more universal than fart jokes: not being afraid of being different from the norm. “I think that’s why we make the things we make. I think people need to be shaken out of their comfort zones, especially now, when so many films are on the repetitious loop. We wanted to give people a strange spiritual experience outside their comfort zone,” Kwan said.

As Hank makes his way back to civilization, he realizes that Manny is guiding him there, like throwing up clean water for Hank to drink seconds before dehydration and an erection that points in a specific direction like a compass. Yet, more importantly, as we are introduced to Manny’s magical “multi-purpose tool” powers, we also see Manny slowly come back to life and question what life is all about. And through this, we see Hank, who would probably be seen as a weirdo, begin to explain to Manny what love is, what cool is, what pop culture is and yes, what sex is.  

We always knew that in order to have permission to go as weird as we were going, we had to ground it and bring it from an extremely honest, truthful place or else people would dismiss it, this movie,” Scheinert said. “The whole movie is about shame, in our eyes, and being ashamed of our bodies, as well as thoughts, as well as alternately being ashamed of our need for love and how sad that is. That’s something everyone needs and shouldn’t be ashamed of.”

It’s in this universal message that the film’s true appeal lies. “Swiss Army Man” finds the perfect combination of lowbrow humor, something not far off from the perennial Adam Sandler films, while dealing with metaphysical themes found in the yearly Oscar contenders.

Without the lead actors though, it’s hard to imagine the film deftly balancing the two. Dano and Radcliffe give what has to be considered their greatest performances yet. Dano has historically been type-cast as an outcast from society, and for proof, look no further than the twisted, deceiving twins in “There Will Be Blood,” the sadistic overseer in “12 Years a Slave” and the violent and challenged suspect in “Prisoners.” But in “Swiss Army Man,” there is a further dimension of sweetness and wonder. Through the Daniels’ dialogue and the perfectly controlled performance from Dano, we begin to see layers underneath Dano that hint at a tragic childhood, one that may explain his distant, different feeling from society.

As for Radcliffe’s performance as Manny, it’s so precisely tuned and comically timed that as far as physical performances go, this will rank up there with the best of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. If Leonardo DiCaprio can win an Oscar for eating raw bison liver in “The Revenant,” Radcliffe should get nominated for performing the whole movie as if his body is limp and out of his control, while being incredibly, emotionally human. Will it happen? Sadly, probably not.

Nonetheless, the first-time feature directors — known for the viral “Turn Down for What” music video — are thankful for the two actors signing on. “Both were enthusiastic and had a lot to offer as far as making their characters even more three dimensional. They didn’t say ‘yes.’ They said ‘yes’ then helped us,” Scheinert said.

From the award-worthy performances and the absurd concept to its masterful execution and endlessly listenable soundtrack by alternative band Manchester Orchestra (which is sung by the actors in most instances and also currently on Spotify) all the way to the montage heavy editing (influenced by the directors’ past resume with music videos) and exquisite compositions in the cinematography, “Swiss Army Man” is the film we’ve all been waiting for in 2016.

Love it, hate it or don’t get it, “Swiss Army Man” shows us that cinema can still find ways for new, lively voices to thrive. Who knew it took a farting corpse film to figure that out?

Levi Hill covers film. Contact him at [email protected].