PARK CITY – The 2016 Sundance Film Festival was collectively turned on its head Friday afternoon with the world premiere of “Swiss Army Man,” the feature film debut of Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan. The filmmaking partners are better known professionally as Daniels and are responsible for iconic music videos such as DJ Sanke and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What” and have collaborated with act such as Chromeo and Foster the People. Whether it’s using a car chase as a backdrop or having people covered completely in black move a band like they were puppets their work has always demonstrated a cinematic hands-on approach. Intricate visual effects or stylized graphics really haven’t been their thing. Even within that context, “Swiss Army Man” is something of a jaw-dropper.
It may sound like laziness to suggest that “Swiss Army” is hard to describe, but, frankly, no truncated recap will do it justice. The film begins with Hank (Paul Dano) stranded on a small island about to hang himself as he believes he’ll never be rescued. Out of the corner his eye he sees a lifeless body washed up on shore. Eventually we discover this man is named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dano races over believing he may not be dead yet. Once again despondent and believing Manny is no longer with the living Hank decides to attempt to hang himself once more. And then, Manny farts (Now, at this point you may wonder what on earth could this lead to, but keep an open mind for a minute). As Manny continues to randomly fart he is caught up into surf and Paul begins to realize his strong farts are pushing him in the water. Desperate for any means off this island, he races after Manny, jumps on his back and begins to ride him like a jet ski at fantastic speed (it’s worth noting this is when the title credits first appear). It’s comical and bizarre, but it lets you know what you’re in for. Eventually Hank falls off and the two wash up ashore on a coastline that hints of civilization beyond the woods that border its shore. And that’s when the movie really takes off.
As the picture progresses Hank begins to slowly bring Manny back to some semblance of “life.” Manny doesn’t remember who he was (except his name or he thinks that’s his name), but he’s intrigued by a photo of Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) that is the screensaver on Hank’s phone. What he doesn’t know, however, is that Sarah has been a girl Hank has had a crush on but afraid to approach (that will wreak havoc later on)
The more Manny becomes animated the more new “tools” he seems to have. Whether it’s a hand that spits fire or a throat and stomach that acts like a water faucet Manny is the mechanism that helps Hank survive on their journey home. Of course, once he sees Sarah his, um, private part begins to act as a compass to guide them to her (and in context back to civilization). Manny is childlike as he questions how human beings exist and why we hide things from one another that are so natural (say like farting or masturbation). He also is so infatuated by Sarah that Hank realizes the only way he can get Manny to help him home is to recreate Sarah for him in the forest and to play Sarah himself. Using found garbage and branches he even constructs a model of the bus where the photo was taken to explain how Manny would charm her and dresses up as Sarah to make the illusion live. The more they make their way through the forest the closer their friendship becomes. The film actually tackles whether two supposedly straight men (granted, one semi-dead one) can seemingly fall in love with each other in this context. It’s a daring choice and – in the best context – an example of a new form of queer cinema.
Initially, the strong influence of both Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze is evident in Scheinert and Kwan’s aesthetic, but they end up taking it to places even those acclaimed artists might hesitate to go. And “art” is the operative word here. “Swiss Army” is not traditional filmmaking in the slightest. It dares the audience to question their preconceived notions on numerous levels and believe that a relationship between these two characters can even exist in the first place. It’s a crass, beautiful, funny, thought provoking and, most of all, an accomplished work. You rarely see films that challenge an audience in this manner and still find ways to entertain anymore. And, frankly, it’s impressive it got made in the first place.
“Swiss Army” would completely fail without the committed performances of both Dano and Radcliffe. On the one hand, the intimacy the actors reach to pull off Hank and Manny’s relationship – both physically and emotionally – is somewhat remarkable. For Dano, he has to carry the weight of the film on his shoulders (literally in the case of Radcliffe’s character) and convince us that Hank may not be as crazy as he initially seems (or depending on your interpretation have sympathy for Hank). Radcliffe, on the other hand, pulls of a fantastic physical performance that often finds him thrown around like a rag doll, dragged across the woods and forced to modify the different stages of Manny’s mobility.
Many people may try to dismiss “Swiss Army Man” as the “fart” movie or a picture that is an extraneous attempt to explain why one white man isn’t brave enough enough to ask a woman out. That is simply shortsighted and sadly dismissive. By the time this review is published there were already stories of moviegoers who walked out before the film hit the halfway point. That’s disheartening because the film’s climax is emotional and finds a way to surprise. Then again, many artistic accomplishments are often misunderstood the first time around. Hopefully “Swiss Army Man” isn’t one of them.