This first feature from the short film writer/director team of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert has been polarising since it first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where a portion of the audience walked, or even ran, from the auditorium shortly after the screening began, while others praised its bold quirkiness. No one could argue that the film has universal appeal, but there is much to be admired in the innovative script and the wildly creative use of film technique.
The plot itself is only the bare bones of this film. It begins as a man named Hank (Paul Dano) appears to be stranded alone on a deserted island, apparently for some time.
Right away, an aside is called for. The qualifiers ‘appears to be’ and ‘apparently’ must be understood to refer to virtually everything that takes place in this film, which refuses to establish itself as either a fantasy, a hallucination by the main character, or a combination of both. Even those things which become accepted by the viewer as facts may turn out to be fantasy after all, and vice versa, the reality often revealed in very unexpected ways. This puzzling approach keeps the audience’s attention, allowing the story’s real nature to become clear.
At the film’s outset, castaway Hank has abandoned hope of rescue and reached a state of despair and loneliness, to the extent that he is about to commit suicide. At this crucial point, he sees a person washed up on shore. What Hank hoped was a companion turns out to be a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe). As if to ridicule his disappointment, the body audibly and more or less continually emits gas, presumably as part of the decomposition process.
The scenario is no less strange to watch than it is to describe. However, after arriving on a heavily forested coastline on the mainland, full of encouraging signs of a nearby human population, the relationship between man and corpse goes in new directions. While searching for inhabitants, Hank finds himself answering Manny’s questions, and in the process works through the issues that have been confusing and tormenting him. Immersing himself in this unlikely form of analysis, Hank and Manny act out dramatisations, complete with improvised costumes, of events from Hank’s past; perform musical numbers together; and delve into Hank’s troubled relationships with family and friends.
Paul Dano is appropriately vulnerable and sympathetic as Hank, working his way home from both the ‘real’ and the allegorical desert island. Daniel Radcliffe handles the unique challenge of being convincingly dead in a speaking role quite competently. The character of Manny is a disturbingly literal corpse: not a ghost, not even a zombie, but an actual dead body in every physical way, apart from its apparent ability to communicate. While he may be the most off-putting aspect of the film, it could be argued that such a repulsive character/object was necessary to make the point required, concerning Hank’s own level of self-loathing and self-rejection.
The concluding scenes finally bring together all the clues and references that had been emerging, although the film’s ending, which plays mischievously with the distinction between real and imaginary, may be as polarising as the film in general.
Swiss Army Man has its weaknesses, but it is a sincere and original attempt, and seems to have accomplished what the filmmakers intended. This may be a film viewers will either love or hate, but it is at least one worth giving a chance.