Swiss Army Man (2016)

96 Swiss Army Man

We dont usually call films defiant. After all, to defy audiences or cinema itself would be self-defeating. But there are many ways film can defy us. For example, it can ignore the basic logic of storytelling and blur the boundaries of reality and fantasy. Or it can boldly go into places where polite people do not tread and then step back and laugh at us for following. This is what Swiss Army Man (2016) does, and the best way to experience it is like an extended poem or a meditation, enjoy its rich metaphors and figurative layers of meaning, and savour its defiance of conventional logic.

If this sounds challenging, at least the plotline is simple. Marooned on a deserted island, Hank (Paul Dano) is about to hang himself when he notices a body washed up on the beach. He befriends the soon un-dead corpse he names Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) and uses its strange powers to navigate back to civilisation. Defying all logic, Manny is able to produce enough high-velocity flatulence to power a jet-ski and fire projectiles at marauding bears and other wildlife. This absurdist scatological comedy shows them navigating out of the wilderness guided by Manny’s penile compass while having ongoing conversations that dwell heavily on male sexual functions. Totally normal, you might say, for a film focused on two young men.

The real substance of this film is not the crazy happenings but the dialogue and relationship between two lost souls. Like a deliberately ambivalent poem or painting, the film can be interpreted in so many ways and what you bring to it shapes its meaning. The more obvious themes relate to nature’s beauty compared to the artifice of civilisation, human-caused environmental degradation, the existential irrelevance of manners, and the value of love and friendship in sustaining life. Look closely and you will find a film that echoes the classic absurdism of Waiting for Godot and the rich fantasy of Prospero’s Books.

From a technical point of view, there is little to say about a film that defies logic and has multiple endings that make no more sense than the surreal journey. The acting is engaging and often touching (although caricatured) and the acapella soundtrack is eerie but effective in sustaining the film’s weirdness. It is not for everyone and those grossed-out enough to leave early are missing one of the most original films of the last decade. Ignore what you read. Just see it, feel it, and take time to think about what it means to you.


Directors:  Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert

Stars: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe