Wednesday 11 December 2019

Movie Review: Swiss Army Man (2016)

A drama and adventure about an unlikely friendship forged in the pursuit of rescue, Swiss Army Man is a challenging journey into the disorienting recesses of mental illness.

Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded alone on an island. About to hang himself out of desperation, he notices a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washed up on the beach. With the dead body emitting a regular stream of farts, Hank rides the corpse like a jet ski to the relative shelter of an undefined wooded area, where scattered trash signals nearby civilization and the opportunity for salvation. Hank cannot bring himself to abandon the corpse, and they take shelter together in a cave.

The dead body helps Hank again by vomiting out a stream of drinkable fresh water, and then starts to communicate, adopting the name Manny and the persona of a naive but well-meaning friend. Hank introduces Manny to the picture of a dream woman called Sarah on his cell phone, leading to discussions about masturbation, confidence and Hank's difficult and repressed upbringing. Within his pants Manny's penis springs to action and starts pointing the way out of the forest. Hank carries his friend through the difficult wooded terrain, with Sarah's house as the intended destination.

At face value Swiss Army Man is dumbfounding and more than irritating. The film requires tolerance of a talking, water-emitting corpse that can launch itself like a rocket, endless conversations about masturbation, pop psychology discussions related to dysfunctional parenting, a fart routine repeated too many times, and a penis-as-compass. Hank also appears unable to navigate out of relatively easy terrain, and instead gets distracted by rudimentary role playing related to a singular encounter with an unattainable girl.

Co-directors and co-writers Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan make none of it easy or rationally accessible, laying out events in a stubborn approximation of a dissonant reality where everything appears grounded but actually nothing is. Swiss Army Man works better as a searing exploration of a catastrophic mental illness and severe personality disorder, a representation of the world as only the traumatized and scarred Hank sees it. The final act reveals the very few clues as Hank's physical location is suddenly clarified and Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and a few other characters come into focus.

Most of the film features Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe in a ghastly world of their own, and both actors pull off exceptionally difficult roles. Dano hints at the emotional distress corroding Hank, while Radcliffe gently normalizes the macabre concept of an animated corpse with humour and a surrender to an alternative reality.

Swiss Army Man demands a willingness to accept an incongruous sense of existence. It's a hazardous entertainment experience, but also a courageous one.

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