Swiss Army Man: A film about life, death and everything in-between

As much as the film strays into absurdity, it grounds itself in human emotion

By Ryan Lewis Nair

To attempt compartmentalising Swiss Army Man into one genre is pointless. The film, directed by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, and starring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe is truly a flick as wild as they come. The film follows Dano, a desert island castaway named Hank on the verge of committing suicide when Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on the shore. Hank develops a friendship with Manny and eventually learns that he can utilise the corpse much like a Swiss army knife. As their ‘relationship’ blossoms and Hank discovers Manny can magically conjure fire, spray water and basically fly (crazy, I know), the cadaver slowly returns to life. This marks the turning point in the film. Just as Manny has saved Hank from his own insanity, Hank has to teach Manny how to live, as the corpse has no memory of his former life. This is where the brilliance of Swiss Army Man stems from – it is a film chronicling life, love, death, dreams, making friends, music, sex, lying, learning, being a kid, being a teenager, being an adult, being weird, being polite… This film explores every nook and cranny of modernity and this element makes it relatable on a basic human level.

I had not heard much about Swiss Army Man before seeing it and I think this naivety is what made the film so mesmerising. I felt like what I had just watched was art. It left me feeling happier because the film simply understood what it means to be human. Arguably it could be called a drama, but I think what is different here is that Swiss Army Man concludes with a blissful undertone of finality. It does not leave you feeling like you wish your life was more exciting like a film, but rather that everything is as it should be.

Not all critics felt the same as I did though, with some viewers at the Sundance Film Festival walking out during the first screening due to the film’s alarming nature. Certainly, the film is not as straight-edged as the common viewer may like, but nowadays the ‘edgier’ the film the more attention it gathers, and I believe Swiss Army Man is destined for great things. The unorthodox quality of the film is its achievement, with Peter Durbage of Variety calling its weirdness ‘a badge of honour’. If viewers do not understand this accolade, then they have simply missed the point of the film.

Another talking point is Radcliffe’s retribution as an actor. Personally, after the Harry Potter series, most film goers would agree that Radcliffe had been type-cast and that was the peak of his career. This film just shows us how wrong we were. Radcliffe completely strips away all preconceptions of his acting ability and draws cleverly upon his character’s situation to inspire empathy from the audience throughout. One scene in particular worth noting is with Hank on a makeshift bus, in which Manny roleplays a conversation with the girl he is in love with. Radcliffe playing the fool is about as beautiful as Potter was courageous.

In an interview with The Culture Trip, Radcliffe describes the film as ‘magical realism’ and he hits the nail on the head perfectly here. As much as the film strays into absurdity, it still grounds itself in human emotion. By the end of the film though the audience are left wondering whether the film’s moral actually transcends the story. In a Fight-Club-esque way, perhaps Manny’s existence was all in Hank’s head? Alternatively, maybe he did die when he hung himself and the film is his afterlife. As far as interpretations go, I think that what the film shows us is literally what happens. Hank’s terrible life is graced by Manny’s arrival and this intervention helps him reclaim a grasp on his sanity and make sense of life’s hardships. Similarly, to most of cinema’s greatest films, an ambiguous ending provokes a polarised wave of discussion and this is what a great film should achieve. With regards to Swiss Army Man, we simply cannot know what the ending means, and this ineffability is what directors Scheinert and Kwan were aiming for when they concocted this wacky and eye-opening film.


Ryan Lewis Nair

This article was published in our October 2016 issue.

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