Well I can safely say you have never seen anything quite like this. I’ve watched some strange stuff over the years, including films that I immediately loathed, despite their pretensions at philosophical depth. There have been horror movies that made no sense but I enjoyed them and there have been pieces of work that some have claimed as masterpieces that seemed like total crap to me. “Swiss Army Man” defies any categorization along those lines. It is coherent but ambiguous. There are pretentious elements to it but it never gets so self satisfied as to be annoying. I kept trying to think of comparisons to be made that would help someone decide to see this or not but all of those comparisons are inadequate in a number of ways. For instance, the most obvious hybrid/mash-up description of the film is that it is a cross between “Cast Away” and “Weekend at Bernies”. That combination is technically on the nose but misses so much of what this film seems to be about that you would be lost using it as a compass.
Plot is not really the point of the film, it is really a long mediation on loneliness that uses a desert island scenario to kickstart our thinking on what the feeling of isolation really does to us. Along the way though, we are given plenty to laugh at and be horrified by. There are moments in this movie that are so over the top sincere that you wonder that anyone could take it seriously, and then you find yourself being caught up in one of those moments and in spite of your better judgement, going along with it. Many of you will have heard of this film being referred to as the “farting corpse” movie. I really think that short hand description will keep plenty of people who might find this interesting from coming out to see it. Again, while technically accurate, it is misleading.
As I sat watching the movie I also tried to figure out where it was going. I thought I had it nailed when I remembered an unusual episode of the “Twilight Zone”, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. It is actually a French Short film that Rod Sterling obtained for one time use. I was it in high school for an English class I was taking, and today, I kept thinking, that “Swiss Army Man” was an update of the concept; it isn’t. They do have elements in common but the psychological/supernatural points that they share turned out to be minimal. I also thought I might be seeing a “Wizard of Oz” pay off, that turned out to be wrong as well. As I said earlier, this movie defies most conventional forms of description, and those that it doesn’t, will result in a lack of understanding of the film.
Weird, is not necessarily a hindrance to a movie but it is not a magic charm to make a movie good. As weird as this film is, I have a hard time putting my finger on the things that made it worthwhile to me. Paul Dano is an actor that I have seen heavily criticized on some other blogs. Apparently he irritates a number of people. I thought he was very sincere and emotionally connected in this film. There are obvious places where there could be histrionic techniques used to try and make his character either sympathetic or important. He relied on more natural tools and expressions to pull us in. Daniel Radcliffe appears to be taking plenty of risks with his career. This is maybe the biggest and he succeeds in making a somewhat animated corpse a character that we will care about and believe it or not, relate to.
This film will not be for everyone. I recorded a Lambcast the other day, and one of the other participants, J.D. was making the point that if movies like this one are not supported by film audiences who protest the lack of imagination in Hollywood, they should shut the hell up. I’m not one of those people, although I have groused about some of the sameness end endlessly repeated sequels and plot lines of film fare. I also go out of my way when possible to see films that are clearly different. Over the years I have been irritated by some of those “unique” films. “The Tree of Life”, “Black Swan” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” jump immediately into mind and give me a headache remembering the painful experience. However, there are plenty of other films that I’ve sought out, things like “Sing Street” or “Win-Win” or “City Island” which make a gamble of the atypical so worthwhile. “Swiss Army Man” falls into the later category. It was only playing on one screen in my neck of the woods, and only one screening a day, at 10:30 in the morning, but if you are bored with most of the films you are seeing this summer, this will take you out of that rut.