Dear Fellow Critics,
Go ahead, say it. I know what you’re all thinking: only a juvenile jackoff would seriously go to bat for Swiss Army Man as the best film of the year. Normally, my tastes are disconcertingly populist. I’m the guy who regularly defends the Oscars’ Best Picture winners as the actual best pictures of the year. Then along comes Swiss Army Man, rocking a painfully low 48% from Top Critics on Rotten Tomatoes. It might be the most poorly reviewed film I’ve ever thought was truly great.
But popular opinion be damned, I’m going all-out artsy-fartsy with my pick.
Actually, let’s talk about that term for a second. “Artsy-fartsy” is the sort of lazy, dismissive label your uncle uses to describe black and white movies with subtitles. No one takes the term seriously because, well, it rhymes, and makes no sense, and makes the person using it sound much dumber than whatever they’re trying to condescend. But I have a feeling co-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively credited as “DANIELS”) got drunk and tackled the notion of “artsy-fartsy” as a dare—one they took dead-serious. In doing so, they somehow managed to create the most audacious, endearing, entertaining, life-affirming, and unconventional film of the year.
Yes, the movie about the farting corpse. Not the movie with a scene that features corpse-farts (which would be normal-ish), but the movie whose very plot is fueled by farts. It's worth focusing on, too (this isn’t Parliament, after all, and I’m sick of reading lukewarm reviews that send me to the dictionary just the writer can avoid typing that four-letter word). Farts aren’t just played for laughs in Swiss Army Man—they’re the whole point. The film takes body humour to such absurd lengths in order to reach an insanely ambitious goal. “We want to make a movie where the first fart makes you laugh,” the original pitch went, “and the last one makes you cry.”
Well, fuck. Mission accomplished.
The very first shots of the film announce the filmmakers’ creativity, humour, and knack for concise storytelling. Garbage origami floats on the ocean, with pleas for help scrawled upon each (too cutely) crafted vessel. Paul Dano, in full Castaway mode as Hank, is about to hang himself when he notices a body wash upon the shore. He races towards the corpse, nearly hangs himself in the process, and attempts to will the body back to life with frantic pleas and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. But instead of the body gasping for air (as we see in every other film), the body releases a windfall of flatulence (sorry—farts). It’s funny, and then it gets silly, and by the time Hank is riding the body like a fart-fuelled jet-ski across the ocean, it goes full-on insane. All this, remember, before the film’s opening title even hits the screen.
I’ve never fallen in love with a movie so hard and so fast.
Usually, when an outrageous moment is used to describe a film, it comes at the end: the movie where the guy cuts off his own arm; the movie where people are sewn together ass-to-mouth. I went into Swiss Army Man assuming that the ending had been spoiled for me, and found myself elated to only be at the beginning of a bizarre journey. And in holding on for the ride (unlike many of you who walked out at the Sundance premiere), I leapt head-first into a world of magical realism, leaving behind the twin bouncers, Why and How, who usually work the door of my critical faculties.
It’s a testament to the commitment of the film’s directors and actors that the allegorical lyricism never crosses into all out fantasy; they are constantly challenging you to take the premise seriously. The film never privileges Hank’s perspective, isolating our first glances of Manny’s gurgling and twitching body from our hero’s perspective. To keen observers, this removes any anticipation for aFight Club twist that would have us re-watch the film knowing that Manny’s bizarre re-animation (played with uncanny perfection by Daniel Radcliffe) was all in Hank’s mind. It is, obviously, and it isn’t, amazingly, and by striking that impossible balance the film also manages to cheat death.
Swiss Army Man holds its spell by embracing the fact that it is, undeniably, a film: unnaturally beautiful lighting, over-the-top sound design, hand-crafted sets within the set, comically dangerous stunts, slow-motion and speed ramps for emphasis. Even the music during the montage, which gives me goosebumps every time I hear it, features the characters singing along to the wildly catchy lyrics “Pop popcorn, pop popcorn, pop popcorn)”. The characters breach the fourth wall just enough to share our space, but never wink (or, in Manny’s case, even blink) at the film’s design by betraying our belief in this hairy-assed fairy tale. The film is pure cinema, and delightfully puerile. Watching it is akin to falling into someone else’s dream, where every subconscious insecurity and eccentricity is amplified into ludicrous detail, but also kind-hearted and familiar enough to insist that your presence is welcome. As Hank might say: a movie that doesn’t hide its farts has nothing to hide.
It would be groan-inducing for me to extrapolate layers of meaning from the film’s surface obsession with body functions (poop, masturbation, erections) and mental malfunctions. This focus is a natural extension of DANIELS bewildering and beautiful music videos and short films. Plus, I think the film’s thesis is best summed up by Manny, delivered with childish naivety in what has to be the best and most unconventional performance of the year: “Maybe we're all just dying sacks of shit, and maybe all it'll take is one person to just be okay with that, and then the whole world will be dancing and singing and farting, and everyone will feel a little bit less alone.”