April 20, 2020

“Swiss Army Man” Review: Songs of the Silly

by Danial Cousins

Swiss Army Man is a bizarre and silly film with dark and difficult themes dealing with self acceptance and relationships. The film begins with Hank (Paul Dano) alone on a beach as he attempts to hang himself, he hums to himself and closes his eyes before he notices a body wash up on shore (Daniel Radcliffe). The story then follows Hank and the body (who is named Manny) as they traverse the woods to find civilization, but also as Manny comes to life as a friend of Hank’s and with abilities that allow their survival.

Swiss Army Man’s silly nature becomes clear from the first moments in which Manny is introduced. Though he starts out as an inanimate corpse washed up on the beach, he brings irony and childish humor as he interrupts Hank’s hopeful monologue by farting. These opening moments enforce this whacky and ridiculous tone with even more clarity when Hank uses the gas coming from Manny to jet ski across the ocean, immediately establishing a comedic and relationship with death in the film. Swiss Army Man constantly attacks the notions of shame in the face of natural bodily functions and emotions.

As Manny comes to life he discovers the natures of the world through his experiences with Hank, it is because of this unique dynamic that we see Hank’s perceptions of the world being challenged. Uninhibited by social shame Manny does not understand the taboos of sex and the human body, and when he really digs into why they should be stigmatized, to which Hank has no real answer. This innocence found Manny is what aids the growth of Hank. However, it is the corruption of Manny’s innocence as he discovers the world that parallels the human experience of growing (specifically childhood and adolescence).

One of the strongest elements of the film is its use of music. Performed by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell (incorporating the singing of the two leads), the music captures and brings to life the emotion in every scene. The distinct sound style and use of songs like “Cotton Eyed Joe” and the Jurassic Park theme trigger individualized memories for audience members who are likely to have had memorable experiences with these songs. The music affects the atmosphere of the piece in such a beautiful way, such as how the song “Montage” gives the scene sequence it is played over a fluidity and playful feeling that is otherwise impossible. The music in Swiss Army Man is memorable in its own right, deeply strengthening the piece as a whole from start to finish.

Paul Dano’s portrayal of Hank is one relatable and heartfelt for an audience member. By the end of the film, you begin to understand and love him in a way that other people seem incapable of. This becomes frustrating as a viewer, but clear for the character himself, leaving questions about reality and sanity in the last shots. The relationship between Hank and Manny becomes real, and says so much about the uptight and disgruntled society in which we all live. The purpose of this film seems to be to poke holes in our serious realities, exposing the inevitable weirdness to the world, and embracing it. Why would we let social humiliation stop us from living the way we desire? Ironically, it is the wise perspective of a child that would tell us to embrace the weird, because to deny that would be to deny happiness in general.

Together, Hank and Manny create a world using the garbage and waste discarded in the woods. Using their relationship and Manny’s abilities, they create a town and “people,” to live in the reality which they choose. Imaginatively created for the film, the set incorporates a “bus” on which Manny spots the love of his life, Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and several other places in which they explore Manny’s fictitious love story. This world of garbage turned expressing their views of the world is in itself a unique and powerful way in displaying their distinct path chosen to live happily. From the outside, in reality, this is bizarre and socially unacceptable. However, in Hank’s mind, and the perspective of the film, it is spectacular. 

I would definitely recommend watching Swiss Army Man, especially those in need of a laugh. It manages to take very difficult themes and deal with them with humor but also appropriate care. The low moments are so very low, such is life, and it is the difference that makes the joy so special. [Grade: B+]

Directors: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Writers: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Starring: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Rated: R for language and sexual material
Available: Netflix
Fun Fact: A fake version of Manny was made to be used in the majority of the film, but Daniel Radcliffe insisted on being in every shot. The dummy was only used in a few shots where the stunts were too dangerous for Radcliffe.

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