I saw “Swiss Army Man” alone at 9:45 a.m. on Independence Day in an empty mall theater, halfway undergoing construction, in Gurnee, Illinois. I had read about a thousand think pieces as to why it’s okay to go to the theater alone, but I still felt terribly anxious as I waddled across the parking lot. How do I explain to the cashier that this is the only time convenient for me to see the farting boner corpse movie? How do I explain to her that I’m not a creepy weirdo who couldn’t get anyone else to see the farting boner corpse movie with me? How will she know I’m a professional Film Critic for the Michigan Daily and it’s my job to see the farting boner corpse movie at 9:45 a.m. on a holiday that I should be spending with my loved ones? How will she know that anyone loves me?
It felt quite ironic, then, that “Swiss Army Man” turned out to be a film about being comfortable with yourself, with being alone, with being awkward, weird, gross and human. Yes, it’s still a movie about a stranded man (Paul Dano, “Love and Mercy”) who discovers a farting, talking corpse (Daniel Radcliffe, “Harry Potter”) and uses those farts as a boat propellor to find his way off of the island. Soon, he finds as the corpse regains his humanity, he discovers other useful supernatural powers to help them both return to society. You probably heard about people walking out of this movie when it played at Sundance, but “Swiss Army Man” transcends its juvenile infamy to become both a wondrous fantasy epic and a scathing piece of social commentary. I promise that.
“Swiss Army Man” was made by directing duo DANIELS, whose breakout hit — the music video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What” — was extremely impressive. “Turn Down for What” is a fairly average trap song in the grand scheme of things, its main attraction being the ludicrous Lil Jon vocal sample that became iconic at some point in its few months of play at frat parties across campus in 2014. Being a very dumb song, I expected its accompanying video to be equally dumb. Perhaps Lil Jon would be seen dancing with scantily dressed women under neon lights in a club, like every other dance video.
Instead, the DANIELS used their video to imbue the simple song with new layers of meaning. The first noticeable difference was almost none of the dancers in the video were conventionally attractive. The actors were also ethnicities other than Black and white, a rarity in mainstream music videos. No one in the video looked like they should be in a dance music video, but there they were anyway, going absolutely insane, partying, drinking and smashing things, and humping everything in sight. It was unique, and it was hilarious. The video seemed to ask: what, indeed, should one turn down for? For propriety? For racial politics? For vanity? None of the above, say the DANIELS.
It’s fascinating how the thesis of this video — embracing base humanity and rambunctiously appreciating life even when other people are watching — expands perfectly into their debut feature film. As Dano’s castaway Hank nears civilization, he discovers more of the corpse’s supernatural abilities, while simultaneously teaching the childlike corpse (nicknamed Manny — heh) about the realities of life. How to poop, how to masturbate, how to love, how to ride the bus. Manny needs to learn it all again.
Here’s the emotional core of the film: Manny approaches his miraculous biological functions (superpowered farting, erections) with an innocent sense of wonder and beauty, while Hank shames him for them, saying these biological functions are impolite. The concept of “weirdness” is deconstructed in this film, though in a more complex manner than the simple “weird is relative” sentiment one could construct with a Facebook meme. It’s condemning the societal pressure to hide what makes us people, and nearly the entire notion of privacy itself. It’s heartbreaking to watch Manny cry and call himself disgusting, convinced his magical human body isn’t beautiful. This movie is so, so good.
Oh, and Daniel Radcliffe. At first glance it appears Amy Schumer’s joke in “Trainwreck” has come full circle — Radcliffe being pretentious and goofy in a bizarre art house film. Is it conflicting to call Radcliffe’s performance here both a novelty and a masterwork? Both gimmicky and transcendent? At the very least, it’s extraordinarily inventive. There is nothing Radcliffe could have copied to study for this role. His portrayal of Manny is wholly original and stupefyingly brilliant. Only an actor who has the means to live comfortably for the rest of their life (and therefore can take whatever financial and artistic risks they want) could produce such a performance. The life Radcliffe is living is that of an indie hero during the day who sleeps on a mountain of blockbuster cash at night.
It also must be said that “Swiss Army Man” is a musical masterpiece. The mostly a cappella score, composed by two of the guys from indie rock band Manchester Orchestra (DANIELS did a music video for them) and performed in part by Dano and Radcliffe, flows seamlessly between diegesis and non-diegesis, literally accentuating the film’s action (the lyrics say what’s happening onscreen!).
“Everything everywhere matters to everything” is a lyric repeated in the soundtrack, and it’s a phrase that stuck out to me as I walked out of the theater, significantly more confidently than when I went in. It reflects a certain life philosophy evident in the filmmaking of the DANIELS. They want everyone leaving the theater to feel a bit more okay about themselves; to care a little less about the dumb rules and regulations we put on ourselves. To approach the entropy of existence with an absurdist bravery.
But “Swiss Army Man” is not necessarily a feel-good movie. It has a darker side, reflected in its ruminations on death (which I suspect were inspired in a meaningful way by the legendary “X-Files” episode “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”) and its unexpectedly dark ending. I was actually going to bump a few grades off of the review score for “Swiss Army Man” ’s ending, which is heartbreakingly cruel. It pissed me off in a few ways, and, walking out of the theater, my mind automatically attached a “bad” label to it, when really it was a masterclass in emotional evocation. I was mad because the filmmakers dragged me kicking and screaming out of the fantasy I was having alone in the theater, back into the brisk Illinois air. But the ending only strengthens one of the core themes of the film, which is that each of us will have a cruel and unexpected ending, and that’s part of nature, and that’s okay.