I wasn’t sure exactly what to make of the supposed “farting corpse movie” that I heard was dividing Sundance earlier this year. My mind immediately linked it to the kind of post-modern, internet bred anti-comedy that was born out of the bizarre mid-2000s programming from Adult Swim. You know the type, the repetitive, jokeless exercise in weirdness, in which any attempts at finding depth is a futility that turns out to be the joke itself. Not my kind of thing, if I’m being honest. It seemed like the kind of thing not unlike last year’s viral sensation, Too Many Cooks, which was something that I simply did not get the appeal of, or anything by the Tim & Eric crew, who I just cannot stand. So, naturally, a part of me was a bit apprehensive going into Swiss Army Man, but I was still curious. The writer/director duo, The Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), have made a solid reputation with their shorts and music videos. You’re probably most familiar with their work on the delightfully bonkers video for the song, Turn Down For What. If anything, a movie about a farting corpse with seemingly fantastical powers does make it one of the more original films to come out recently.
The farting corpse in question is Manny (Danielle Radcliffe), who washes ashore on a small uninhabited island. At least, uninhabited aside from Hank (Paul Dano), who is stranded and about to commit suicide just as he sees Manny’s body on the beach. What ensues in probably one of the stranger and maybe profound survival stories you’ll ever see.
I am glad to say that Swiss Army Man actually works, not only does it work, it’s easily one of the best films of the year. I get that’s hard to imagine with a movie that has been widely referred to as the “farting corpse movie,” but the Daniels really had something up their sleeves with this one. It wasn’t an empty exercise in surrealism with no point or throughline. Swiss Army Man is a film that is filled to the brim with character, heart and emotion. It’s a broad, sweeping meditation on the human condition, where it explores loneliness, love, redemption, growing up, self-discovery, among many other possible interpretations. It’s a movie where you can take 10 people to it, and by the end of it, each person will find something different about it that resonated with them. By keeping things mostly broad and vague, it gives the film a very universal and timeless quality.
What really helps in making the film so great is the skills of the Daniels being put front and center. They give the film a look as if it was some handmade construct, similar to how Hank and Manny make little personal treasures out of garbage they find in the forest. And the same goes to the incredible score by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, which seems to consist largely of vocals (including that of Dano and Radcliffe) and percussions. What struck me the most was the profound understanding and command of cinematic language that the Daniels had. They create beautiful imagery (with the help of cinematographer, Larkin Seiple, who is slowly making a name for himself), but it’s not empty prettiness. The shots mean something, they move things forward, and it is perfectly in sync with the storytelling, with each emotional beat amplified through sheer sincerity and skill behind the craftsmanship. This is the kind of filmmaking that blows you away with its audacity without relying on any kind of gimmickry as a crutch. Even with all that, what ultimately holds everything together are the two lead performances from Dano and Radcliffe. Both deliver incredibly intimate and vulnerable performances. Daniel Radcliffe in particular is the best he’s ever been. It’s the kind of performance that would easily garner awards buzz, even though it won’t because of some of the cruder elements. It’s a beautifully performed film and the two are able to sell both the silliness and the emotional core with absolute ease.
Too bad about those last 15 minutes, though.
So, for the next paragraph, I am going to talk about the last act of the film and why I don’t think it works nearly as well as everything that came before. Consider this a Spoiler Warning!
Last warning for the following paragraph! Skip to the final paragraph to avoid spoilers.
So, in the final act, Hank and Manny finally find themselves back in civilization and they end up in the backyard of the girl that Hank has feelings for, Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). We then see first hand what her life is like, she’s happily married and has a little girl. Hank knows this already because moments before we see that the Instagram app on his phone leads directly to her profile, also her picture is the background on his phone and…yeah. The creepy and very stalker-ish behavior that would have simply been minor subtextual stuff is suddenly thrust to the forefront, and I don’t see how it contributes to what the film has been building up to. Of course, as the police and media show up, Hank’s estranged father eventually comes and there’s this big, weird finale that I won’t spoil. The reason the final act lost a lot of steam for me is because it took away the non-specific universality of those first two acts. You never fully knew the nature of Hank’s past because it uses the broadest strokes possible. It gave the audience the chance to put their own spin on things, to apply their own individual experiences. It felt like it was meant to be about the collective human experience, not a character study. When we follow Hank and Manny back to civilization, we leave the metaphorical and enter a grounded world where some of the specifics and small details that are suddenly introduced, it don’t paint a particularly great picture of Hank. Before it was all about the idea of things, the idea of that estranged father, the idea of that one girl you could never get the courage to ask out, the idea of following your dreams, etc. It felt like something that could’ve been easily fixed with a minor rewrite. The weird, whimsical innocence from the first two acts was mostly gone and the film doesn’t offer much in return except a few details that only point out how oddly creepy the main character that we were rooting for was. Who knows, maybe that was all apart of some bigger joke that the Daniels were pulling on the audience, but the movie felt like it was better than that. But maybe it improves upon rewatch, I don’t know yet, but it’s the one aspect that prevents me from calling this a full blown masterpiece.
Swiss Army Man doesn’t quite stick the landing for me, but everything before the last 15 minutes are genuine A+ material. The missteps in the climax ultimately does very little to taint the overall experience. It’s bold filmmaking from start to finish, which miraculously balances the absurd and silly with the earnest and emotional. It’s one of the most impressive directorial debuts in recent memory and it makes the Daniels a duo that you simply need to keep an eye on. It’s a film that grabs you, moves you, makes you laugh, maybe even cry, and it excites you to see where these filmmakers go next. Whatever it is, I’ll be there. One thing that many storytellers have a tendency to do is attempt to reach profundity through dry pontification and empty philosophy, but what the Daniels do brilliantly is embrace the inherent strangeness of life and allow the beauty of it to reflect through that…and the farts. 90/100