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Swiss Army Man Review: “Maybe Everyone’s A Little Ugly”

Swiss Army Man is a touching comedy/drama that’s equal parts poetic and bizarre in its exploration of existence and the purpose of life.

When Manny’s (Daniel Radcliffe) dead body washes up on the coast of a remote island, downbeat castaway Hank (Paul Dano) quickly seizes the unusual opportunity that life has thrust upon him and uses the man’s corpse to reach safety – by straddling him with a rope and using the body’s expulsion of natural gases to propel them across the sea to the mainland. And if that image isn’t enough to pique your interest in directors Kwan & Scheinert’s absurd comedy/drama, perhaps the film’s more philosophical explorations on the meaning of life will be. Swiss Army Man doesn’t take itself seriously for one minute, instead using its incredibly unique and endearingly repulsive story to ask questions that plenty of films are afraid to ask – and doing it with striking confidence and personality.

On the surface, Swiss Army Man might be a funny and uplifting chronicle of the unlikely relationship between loner Hank and sentient-corpse Manny, but it’s simultaneously so much more than that. It’s a spiritual exploration of the almost-indistinguishable borders between life and death, between ‘weird’ and ‘normal’, and between living your life for yourself and living it for others. At first, a friendship between a living human and a conscious dead body might seem unusual and impractical, but the film manages to make it seem completely sensible and even practical. Since Manny is dead, he has none of the traits that cause socially-anxious Hank to be rejected by society – no fear, no shame, no sense of overthinking or getting lost in his own emotions – and he manages to show Hank what life is like without those. And in return, Hank is able to teach the dead Manny about the small wonders of life – causing them both to fall in love with life for the first time.

During the film, the pair are forced to trek through a relentless jungle in order to find their way back to civilization and reunite with the lives that they both left behind. But life in the jungle is different – there’s nobody to tell them how to live, nobody to judge their choices, and nobody to tell them that they don’t ‘fit in’. It’s here, away from his parents, his friends, and the rest of society, that Hank finally feels free. He makes attempts to teach Manny how to adapt to the real world, but when Manny starts to question why certain things are considered ‘normal’ and other things make you ‘weird’, Hank realizes that there are no answers he can provide. Through the pair’s realization that the ‘rules’ of life are completely arbitrary, the film makes us question everything that society has taught us about how to live. Are we really ‘living’, or are we being restricted and guided so strongly that we can only truly describe ourselves as ‘existing’?

loud and clear reviews Swiss Army Man daniels 2016 film
Swiss Army Man (A24)

All of this comes together into one of the most thoughtful and intriguing screenplays out there, which directing duo ‘Daniels’ elevate even further with their astute cinematography and incredibly moving use of editing. Every scene feels like a dream, as Hank and Manny begin to feel more and more comfortable around each other through their newfound appreciation of each others’ existence. Put simply, Hank wants to be dead and Manny wants to be alive – but through exploring these ideas in such a clear and well-written way, the characters realize that neither one of them has all the answers. Nobody does. ‘Daniels’ create such a unique atmosphere in their film, with Dano and Radcliffe’s performances elevating the content even further to form two of the most interesting and memorable characters ever explored in a film like this. 

Above all else, Swiss Army Man is a film for those who find themselves questioning their place within the often-unfair and always-unpredictable natural order of things here on our tiny rock in the middle of endless space. It blends uncomfortable humor with laugh-out-loud gags and tear-jerking emotivity to create an extremely individual experience that very few films have ever been able to replicate. Although many will undoubtedly be put off by the film’s unusual and offputting opening (read: many, many fart jokes), the film’s tender exploration of life is sure to reach those who need to hear its message the most. Whether you go into the film relating more to Manny or to Hank, you’ll come out with a newfound appreciation of the often-subdued equilibrium between both troubled minds.

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