Swiss Army Man (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Swiss Army Man (2016)

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Hank is alone on an island and on the verge of suicide.  Right when it seems Hank is about to take the final plunge a corpse washes ashore.  As the corpse comes back to life Hank teaches what it means to live and how they might both find a way home.  Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan wrote the screenplay for and directed Swiss Army Man, and stars Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe.

Sometimes I become so aware of the living trap that is my body I fall, punch the floor, and scream.  I have depression, anxiety, chronic kidney stones, migraines, and a whole list of other health issues that might serve as tools for the corpse at the center of Swiss Army Man.  There's pain, then there's confusion, then there's more pain, and it whirls together until I accept my existence as the bleak joke it is or have another fighting match with the floor.  Thanks to medication and years of therapy, my losing streak of fights with the floor have mostly come to an end, but learning to live with depression means living with the thought in the back of my mind that this mess of a body is no good to anyone so why should it mean anything to me.

I didn't expect much of anything from Swiss Army Man.  Decades of high-concept / low-payoff films have taught me finding ways of dealing with death, let alone something as difficult to live with as depression, leads to pathetic returns.  One of the most improbable movie franchises ever, Weekend at Bernie's, treated death like an easy joke to be ignored while cult classics like Heathers have lines like, "I love my dead gay son," to distance the characters from the reality of death while being a tad homophobic in the meantime.  Swiss Army Man succeeds where many fail because the joke isn't on the dead body, nor is it on the living, but finding a way to cope with the existence we all share and ends the same way.

Plentiful sight gags in Swiss Army Man, like the little assembled frowning fella at the edge of the boat, are buoyed by deeply sincere insights into depression.

Hank (Paul Dano) and Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) are two sides of the same struggle.  The former is at the end of his mental rope, so suffocated by loneliness that the first time we see him he's preparing a noose to hang himself.  The joke there is that Hank almost does as he forgets the noose apparatus he's created when he goes to check on Manny's body.  Living with depression sometimes means being blindsided by an opportunity for hope and becoming so desperate to create that connection that I've failed to see the traps I've created for myself.  As we get to know Hank and his vivid imagination, I think of the ways I distanced myself from pain by intellectualizing or categorizing each experience.

Manny's presence destroys the easy metaphor of Hank's lonely life on the island.  Where Hank thought himself completely alone and mentally destroyed, Manny is a semi-living reminder of the beautiful complexity of the human body.  That complexity doesn't come with a guarantee of cleanliness.  Humans are dirty, we sweat and shoot fluids when we're aroused, our bodies lose control over waste management when we get older, and the slightest sensation may send our minds back to a point in the past when things weren't so hard.  When I was driving to my therapist appointment a month ago I got a whiff of trees and flowers that put me in South Carolina.  I pulled over, repeating to myself I was in Georgia and not South Carolina, to ground myself in the moment instead of letting my mind drift away.

Hank grounds himself thanks to Manny and the way this happens buggers normal description.  Hank is at his mental end, Manny is at its physical, and Manny's remains can do unusual things like provide clean drinking water or propel objects from its mouth with force.  Larkin Seiple's cinematography keeps this looking wondrous instead of macabre.  Streaks of light break through a movie theater Hank builds for Manny, their flesh protrudes from the gorgeous greens of the forest as a constant reminder of their physical beings in this space, and the clear images of Hank and Manny smiling as they discover a new way of utilizing Manny's skills creates intimacy.  By taking the fantasy of Swiss Army Man seriously, Seiple's images show unusual respect for the dead.

We're so out of touch with death that we forget it's part of a cycle and what we leave behind will go on to new life.  The cycle is brilliantly realized in the soundtrack.  Lacking conventional ways of playing music, Hank sometimes keeps his mind busy by humming or creating a beat.  Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, who both worked on the music, creates a bond between the living and the unseen voices of the dead by overlapping Hank's humming with the other noises he makes.  The resulting songs are a capella beauty, serving as a reminder of the unseen but not unfelt people who have gone before us, and Manny's stuttering addition brings death into the cycle by adding new dimensions to the music.

Strutting corpse Daniel Radcliffe is not something I would have put into a "Tasteful" pile but the full embrace of how fantasy fills lonely spaces makes it wonderful.

It's in the music that the strength of Swiss Army Man is revealed in full.  Even though I never asked to be born, I'm part of an invisible cycle with future life dependent on me even though I don't plan on having kids.  Then I think of the life that already depends on me - my wife, cats, family, friends, other loved ones.  The struggle my mind and body go through daily is mine alone but the support system is real.  I don't need to be afraid of this body, of what sounds or excretions it makes, and my mind does not need to be so isolated from the world that I feel I'm the only one living in it.

When Hank is going through a rough patch and Manny can't take it anymore it says, "I want to go back to being dead."  Coming out of depression and being reminded of the immensity of human experience feels that way.  Why can't I go back to being numb?  Because that direction goes toward a noose and precarious stepping block.  Instead, why not live, why not embrace our disgusting glory, why not become the reminder to others that no matter what I'm forced to endure I'll come back and prove the miracle of life.  Such a miracle occurs at the end of Swiss Army Man and, though powered by flatulence, is a reminder to those still living that we're here and we're all we've got.  Let's embrace our disgusting emotions and bodies for what they are while learning how to live all over again.

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Swiss Army Man (2016)

Screenplay written and directed by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan.
Starring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe.

Posted by Andrew

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