Swiss Army Man is no ordinary film. It is a deep dissection of happiness, relationships, and how we replicate our society through the way we interact with others. Oh, and with a touch of magical realism and a couple of laugh out loud moments thrown in for good measure.
The film centers around Hank (Paul Dano) as a desperate man at the end of his rope who seems to be stranded in the wilderness. Just as his despair hits an all-time low, he spots a corpse, washed up on a sandy shore. But this is no ordinary corpse, as one would expect from directors Daniels’ work. (The directorial duo have been making acclaimed music videos for years.) It is a corpse with a seemingly endless bag of tricks, including the ability to start a fire, teeth that act as a razor, and a slow but steady reanimation. As corpse Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) slowly comes back to life, he needs to be taught how to do, well, just about everything. The only hitch is that Hank and Manny are still stuck in the woods.
But the woods are full of trash—bottles, boxes, old furniture—that Hank refashions into models of cars, scarecrow people, and a full sized bus replica. He creates wigs and coats and images of towns to try and teach Manny what the world looks like and how it behaves. As Hank attempts to muddle through modern society with Manny, he stumbles describing what ‘weird’ is. Again and again, Hank explains to the ever-inquisitive Manny that he should avoid anything that seems ‘weird’ or ‘different’—that is, the way he feels about himself. It’s not that what we feel or how we want to behave is truly strange, he seems to stress, but rather that we have to bend ourselves over backwards not to end up laughed at and alone—a strategy which has dramatically backfired for the depressed Hank.
As the movie progresses and the two grow closer, questions emerge. How much time has passed? Is Manny real? Will they ever get out of the woods? Do they even want to? One of the things the film does well is keep a central focus and pace without many time-sensitive plot points. There are no deadlines, no bomb wires to cut, or kids to drop off at school. The film never feels in a rush to get anywhere, but it doesn’t suffer from the bad pacing and lethargy that can sink an otherwise good picture.
In terms of the cinematography and effects, the film is visually rich and full of both lovely framings and hilarious special effects. Watching Manny come back to live and discovering his body’s unusual powers lends a sort of grotesque bodily humor that is rooted in effects emblematic of Daniels’ work. The film comes from a dark place, especially considering the obviously depressed Hank, and these effects and the highly staged and beautifully choreographed cinematography—Manny pretending to learn how to ride the bus a surprisingly charming example—offer a levity that integrates seamlessly into the film.
My one point of contention with Swiss Army Man was its ending. As Hank tries to make his actual escape from the forest, it is never clear how much of what has happened is in his head, how much time has passed, what was real, and what was simply manifestation of his illness. Although it is not necessary to wrap up every ending in a neat little bow, I was craving some indication that some of this was real, that Manny existed and that there was truly hope for changing the way that we see the world.
While Swiss Army Man’s ending is more of a labyrinth than anything else, it does add a rich critical consideration to the film. Taken as a body of evidence to pair with any number of endings, Swiss Army Man unfolds itself into countless different films, screenprinted onto one another, dancing on the edge of contemporary questions about what it means to love others and what it means to love yourself. It dares you to delve into these rich contextual questions. If you have any extra time this week, may I suggest seeing it twice?
— Lauren Christiansen