A film that plays like a ninety minute long music video. A feature directorial debut from a duo simply called ‘Daniels’.
A concept that’s so particular and absurd that it MUST be shooting for something more than just “random”, right?
All these things are true of Swiss Army Man, the latest release from A24. They're the studio responsible for an increasing number of notably original independent films (Ex Machina, The Witch, Green Room, The Lobster, and the Oscar-nominated Room, to name a few). Amongst A24’s filmography, Swiss Army Man seems to be destined as one of the most talked about and critically examined efforts that they’ve released.
If you don’t know, this film is about Hank (Paul Dano), a sad guy who’s stranded on an island with no hope in sight. Just as Hank is ready to end his own life out of desperation, Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) floats to the shore. As it turns out, Manny is dead. He’s full of gas, and seems to be endlessly spewing flatulence from his cold carcass. We see one of the strangest filmic friendships ever form, when Hank discovers that Manny can act as a "multi purpose tool-guy", (wink) and he rides Manny across the water, a human fart-powered jet ski. Yes, this is the “farting corpse” movie you might've heard about (or even the “farting corpse with a boner” movie) that caused a lot of walk-outs at it’s Sundance film festival premiere.
That may sound like a creative albeit juvenile concept for an experimental short film you’d come across on Vimeo, but it is only the first few moments of a film that stretches it’s ideas out far, it’s protagonists spending the majority of the run-time in the woods. Frolicking, philosophizing, and adventuring through a script that dissects all of the painful, disgusting, and beautiful things that make up human life. There have been plenty of films that go for a similar feeling, one that achieves effective wonder through wild impossibility. The sheer audacity and commitment to the idea is what is supposed to carry the film and captivate it’s audience. I’m reminded of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind most immediately. The film’s ‘erase your memories of your past lover so you feel better’ concept wasn’t quite as unabashedly off the wall as Swiss Army Man's, but it’s execution and fearless experimental nature is something that’s present with a similar force in the Daniels’ film. Also, Kevin Smith’s film Tusk, about a crazy old man who turns people into walrus/human monstrosities was given attention because of the audacity of it’s concept. More of a horror-centric effort, Tusk made some film-goers very curious at the thought of “that walrus movie” and what horrific and/or hilarious things were in store. Tusk is no masterpiece, in fact it was a shockingly brash entry in Kevin Smith’s already boisterous filmography. But, it was tantalizing because it was so not typical. Similarly, Rubber caught viewers off guard by presenting a film where victims are tracked down by a sentient tire, rolling around and blowing things up with it’s…mind? The film was bizarre, and it's humor was meta to the point of exhaustion, but original, nonetheless.
While every basic story has been told, and every idea has been done, and whether or not the gross out - then - emotional - then - funny - then - depressing nature of Swiss Army Man is your cup of tea, you cannot deny that it’s a wholly original film. The execution and care that was put into making it is clear. The film practically grabs you and shakes you, singing at you straight to your face with wide eyes and a crooked smile. It’s heartfelt and existential, and a lot of it’s refreshing energy comes from it’s unique soundtrack. The film isn’t technically a musical, but it’s characters do sing, sometimes weaving in and out of being heard in the score and actually singing in then scene. The score by Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull and Robert McDowell is infectious, and flows through the film like thoughts, like breath, like blood through it’s veins. Voices BOP and DOO and DA all through out each scene, finding times to crescendo and transcend when the mood is right.
The current rules of blockbuster filmmaking seem to be: keep it simple, but get bigger and bigger each time. Aliens, superheroes, robots, whoever the fictional figure in question might be, they always seem to save the day after yet another city or continent explodes into computer generated mundanity. But hey, I like superhero movies. They excite me in ways some other blockbusters don’t, the fulfillment of characters I grew up reading and drawing and fantasizing about what they would look like in glorious live action. But it’s obvious that the blockbuster format is becoming tiresome. There’s plenty of life left in them, and audiences aren’t giving up on them any time soon. But the originality in the approach to making Swiss Army Man feels like a rallying cry to filmmakers and audiences alike to open up, let your guard down, and try something new. Even if it’s the guy who played Harry Potter flailing around shooting raccoons with his machine gun mouth While Paul Dano fashions himself a wig out of yarn and trash. It’s something you’ve never seen before. And even better, it has real meaning behind it. There are layers of what this film is saying, and if you're a human, you can relate to them. The Co-Directing team of Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan have taken everything they learned from their impressive collection of music videos (Turn Down For What probably being their biggest claim to fame until now) and have thrown their style into a narrative film. They’re not playing it safe for their first feature with a low key quirky drama, their blasting off into the public consciousness and doing what they want. Lucky for them, their experience and vision paid off to create something magical and truly weird.
However, originality does not necessarily mean quality. Recently, the trailer for Monster Trucks was released, a film about a sea creature who befriends a human and lives inside of his pick up truck, driving around and masquerading as a vehicle. That's a film that, yes, we’ve never seen one like before. But (from my impression of the trailer) it does not seem to have the heart or confidence of something like Swiss Army Man. While this film and the feelings the Directors leave us with are a welcome addition to the world of film, and it looks to have opened up the door to new ways of creating and imagining stories, it may bring a flood of overly stuffed “WTF” films that assume they can get by just on being off the wall, a different but familiar form of style-over-substance.
Whatever Swiss Army Man will lead to, as directors and creatives making music videos and striving to make feature films one day, myself and others at Flow Motion Media see this film as an inspirational jolt. You can tell your story, and you can find an audience that wants to hear what you have to say. And maybe, thanks to films like this one, and perseverance and commitment, you can make them as bonkers as you feel like (for better or for worse, that depends on who you ask). At the very least, make something that YOU want to see, and do it your way. You just might be able to pull off something spectacular.