Sydney Film Festival Film Review: Swiss Army Man (M, USA, 2016)

Simply put, Swiss Army Man is a story about how a man, whilst lost and trapped on an island, befriends a seemingly magical corpse in order to find his way back to civilisation. However, this film is far more than that, it’s an examination of a multitude of themes. A comedy, a drama,a tale of friendship and survival despite the odds. Although if you find farting and fart jokes disgusting, then this definitely isn’t the film for you.

Marooned on an island and bordering on suicidal, Hank (Paul Dano) sees a body wash up on the beach. In a desperate bid to try and ease his madness he engages in a surreal puppet-like friendship with the corpse he names Manny (Daniel Radcliffe). Hank soon discovers that Manny can talk and possesses an unnatural ability to use his dead body for a number of things, like his gassy farts for propulsion, or his lungs to fill with water and spit back out. In one final ditch effort to make it back home and to the woman he loves (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Hank and Manny team up to try and get back to civilization.

When this film first premiered at Sundance this year back in January, the reception was quite mixed. With a number of people confused by the premise and also probably put off by the crass and immature humor. However, there’s something wonderfully honest and simplistic about the fart jokes used in this film. It immediately taps into the idea of social taboos and expectations. Fart jokes, farting in public, vomiting, masturbation, sex, the roles people play in life, parents as educators, men courting women, men having other male friends. All of these things are brought up and tie into the film.

Then, of course, there’s the whole notion of existentialism. Hank’s initial desire to commit suicide is reversed when he realises that he’s not alone. The will to live and finding something to live for drives him out of his rut and enables him to continue on his mission to get back home. This also powerfully connects to one of the other driving themes in the film – relationships and love and loneliness. Hank’s connection to Manny transcends anything you could simply label as “friends”, and Hank’s relationship with Sarah is more complicated than we are initially lead to believe. What we can come away learning is that the people who truly love us are the ones who accept us for exactly who we are.

For the writing/directing team of Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan (collectively known as DANIELS) this is their first feature film after having cut their teeth as music video directors. So it’s no surprise that music is something that also plays an important undercurrent in this. From Hank repeatedly reciting words from that song Cotton Eye Joe and muttering about how it’s “one of those songs that gets stuck in your head” to characters humming the theme tune to Jurassic Park. The DANIELS use this as both a touchstone to help our two characters stay connected to home and the real world.

It’s almost impossible to split both Dano’s and Radcliffe’s performance and say that either one is better than the other. They are equally brilliant, for differing reasons, and they both to carry the bulk of this film together. Each have moments to bust out some physical comedy, but then just as equally flip that to dramatic emotionally charged moments. Though I really am intrigued to know how Radcliffe managed to maintain some of his warped facial features.

Swiss Army Man has an almost-ridiculous premise and is littered with immature fart jokes but it’s still a beautifully heartfelt, hilariously funny and poignant film. If you can get past the initial crass you’ll see how much depth and substance it has and really isn’t that what we want from not just our films but also how we want people to see us?

Review Score: FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 95 minutes

Swiss Army Man is screening as part of Sydney Film Festival and will screen again on Sunday 19 June. For more information and tickets go to the Sydney Film Festival website.