The Daily Stream: The Enduring Weirdness and Unexpected Empathy of 'Swiss Army Man'

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching, why it’s worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: Swiss Army Man

Where You Can Stream It: Kanopy

The Pitch: This one is derisively referred to as “That farting corpse movie,” infamous for debuting at the Sundance Film Festival and instigating mass walk-outs — including professional critics, mind you! — after its very first scene. But not only is it a wonderfully rewarding movie that deals with surprisingly thoughtful, universal concepts (for those willing to meet it halfway and engage with it on its own terms, at least), being able to claim that you gave it a longer leash than the folks whose actual job is to watch movies for a living would be a nice feather in your cap!

Why It’s Essential Viewing: As pointed out in /Film’s review, those initial 5 minutes or so are the make-or-break moment for most viewers. The first images we see are of desperately improvised and amusingly handcrafted messages in a bottle, unanswered cries for help floating away on the waves of the vast Pacific Ocean. Cut to an absurdly tiny island hosting one single shipwrecked occupant (Paul Dano) with a noose around his neck as he gets ready to put himself out of his ceaseless misery. But while taking one last look at his cruelly shrunken world before ending it all, he then spots something washed up on the beach… a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe). And, uh, it appears to be farting?

Writing/directing duo Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert show off their impressive range and grasp of tone in their filmmaking debut here, dealing with the dark and utterly sobering topic of suicide in the same frame that they introduce one of the most hilarious, farcical, and off-putting characters in recent memory. To go into detail about the subsequent events that unfold would be a disservice to anyone fortunate enough to experience this weird, wild trip themselves for the first time. That said, however, it’s no spoiler to say that — no matter what your expectations are — it soon turns into a very different movie than you could ever imagine.

Played with a cleverly deft touch by Dano, loner Hank strikes up an unlikely friendship with Radcliffe’s Manny. In turn, Manny’s growing sentience throughout the first act allows the actor to let loose (pun most definitely intended) in spectacular ways. The crucial dynamic between the burgeoning pair is complemented by balancing Hank’s weariness with the world and his never-ending search for acceptance versus memory-less Manny’s sheer naïveté regarding anything to do with life back home.

We can’t go any further without mentioning Andy Hull and Robert McDowell’s distinctive music, by the way. They organically weave a cacophony of constantly-repeating hums, whistles, pops, and actual dialogue into a soundtrack that tells its own story right alongside the camera (don’t just take my word for it, though. Listen to each earworm yourself). Every time Hank takes a minor example of everyday life — watching the world go by while window-gazing from a bus, enjoying the company of even just one friend, and most importantly the pleasures of Jurassic Park — and patiently teaches Manny what it means to be an autonomous person, the music plays up and feeds off their energy and verve until viewers are left with feelings of life and wonder that can hardly be expressed in word.

Naturally, this is where the Daniels (as they’re known) use the ace up their sleeve and finally reveal their hand. This undeniably bizarre story isn’t defined by being the “farting corpse movie.” It’s a feature-length exploration of celebrating weirdness rather than shunning it; of becoming aware of and working on our individual character flaws; and of learning to be empathetic…even if it comes at the cost of what we want most.

Swiss Army Man won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, though we can probably say that about most film. But for those who find themselves on its lovely wavelength, there’s an unforgettable and oftentimes poignant treasure waiting for you on the other side.

Oh, and there’s also lots of farting. Don’t say I didn’t tell you so.

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