Warning: This review discusses aspects of the plot.
What’s worse than being dead? Perhaps you welcome it, imagining a temperamentally tailored hereafter. Maybe you regard your corpse as a shell, so care little for its fate once your living essence has been drained off. But most of us would like some dignity in death, a little care from the living, coupled with romanticised and posthumously distorted memories of who we were. But Swiss Army Man offers a nightmarish alternative vision of death; a scenario whereby a man, perhaps a victim of drowning, is washed up on the beach and has his body, indeed his identity, appropriated by a whimsical loner with an art degree and a dissociative disorder, who’s rationalised his creepy stalking of a local woman, whom he spied on the bus, as an unconsummated love story.
Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (styled pretentiously as “Daniels”) have made what they imagine to be an eccentric, oddball, perhaps philosophical movie, about the rich world of the imagination and that great untapped spring of creativity that swells within even the most alienated of individuals, in the least likely of circumstances.
There’s beauty in tragedy they say, and reality’s layered. There’s a plain of form and a plain of content, and one can bleed into the other, the diagetic becoming the non-diagetic. There’s the plain of the mind and the material world, and one can condition the other and transform it absolutely. There’s the world we make and the tyranny of the one imposed on us by others and their socially constructed notions of boundaries, propriety, sexual conduct and taste. When it becomes clear that Paul Dano’s Hank is lost in the psychological rather than geographic sense, we’re asked to see him a misguided romantic rather than a threat to the object of his affections. And we can go with it. But what we can’t forgive is his self-indulgence.
For the Daniels make one disastrous miscalculation as Hank rides, fiddles and ventriloquizes “Manny” – the pallid, soggy form of Daniel Radcliffe. They forget to ground their puppeteer, or invest him with kind of wit that one can take as recompense for anything. Instead, Hank comes close to testing our patience with his psychosexual hang ups, arty daydreams, and cod philosophy. He’s the kind of guy you knew at university who was fascinating in short bursts but socially retarded; more comfortable in an interior world where defiling a corpse is both practical and therapeutic. The result cannot be said to be life affirming, and not because the star of the show’s a stiff – rather, that everything depends on our identification with this dewy-eyed degenerate. It’s a reach.
But that said, Swiss Army Man is an original, high-concept movie that eschews the usual clichés surrounding romance and friendship, in favour of something altogether more challenging and artistically expressive. If movies are vivid and wholly constructed fantasies, then movies about vivid and wholly constructed fantasies have a certain purity. So come for the execution rather than any hope of profundity, and Kwan and Scheinert’s film will leave you satisfied. I personally await the prequel that adds an additional layer of tragedy and irony, by showing Radcliffe’s character in life, and his disdain for trying weirdos like Dano.