Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
July 2016

Swiss Army Man

Knives out

On Swiss Army Man, the many practical uses of a corpse's bodily functions, and the disastrous impact of an unwise ending

Swiss Army Man
A24
Director: Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Screenplay: Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan
Starring: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Richard Gross
Rated R / 1 hour, 37 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release
(out of four)

Let's work backwards.

Swiss Army Man demands to be seen from a retrospective lens anyway - more than most movies, even. It's a film largely about reconstructing the past - physically as much as subconsciously - with enlightenment coming through that very act of remembrance. So it only makes sense to begin with its ending, which in its revelations - and even its modified visual choices - re-frames everything that came before it, a few pivotal details in particular.

Without getting into specifics, the finale concludes with one of those shared moments of understanding - of an almost ecstatic collective empathy - that you see at that point in a movie when a lightbulb has gone off and a character (or set of characters) has finally arrived at an ineffable truth. The truth that has been so transcendently arrived at in Swiss Army Man's climactic moment is ... well, false, if not entirely nonexistent. Rather, I'm not convinced the filmmakers even know quite what they're getting across. It's as if they've forgotten, or decided to ignore, the very things we learned in the scenes directly preceding the final moment.

So let's back up a bit, because the penultimate sequence alters so much that the concluding scene appears not to comprehend. One central piece of information - previously unrevealed - dramatically revises the entire meaning of one of the film's emotional through-lines, in a way that proportionally changes the way we have to view our protagonist. And not in a way that necessarily lends itself to dramatic uplift. The sequence affects our understanding of the film narratively, psychologically, even geographically. It complicates matters so comprehensively it would be downright daring if it weren't so misguided in its execution, which comes down to a miscalculation - if not outright misinterpretation - of its own ideas.

Backing up once again, Swiss Army Man had been, up to its final 15 minutes, generally straightforward. Or at least as straightforward as a movie about a sad-sack surviving in the woods with the help of a corpse-of-all-trades possibly can be. In its absurd, idiosyncratic way - its heart always plainly on its sleeve, if a bit askew - it was easy to read, with its childish vagaries (read: farts and boners) lending an uncommon, cockeyed depth to its standard-fare indie-movie conventions. The sad thirtyish white guy - played by Paul Dano, as usual - memorializing a life of regret. The magical figure through whom he finds himself. The absurdist quirks and handmade contraptions and self-curated emo fantasia. And of course The Girl. There's always The Girl.

It's the aforementioned magical figure that makes the most difference here, as Dano's Hank spends the bulk of the film palling around with a corpse he has named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe). The two are ostensibly surviving (well, in a manner of speaking) together in the woods, far from civilization - civilization in this case being defined as "place where you can get a signal on your phone" - and far from whatever lonely existence Hank left behind. Manny is essentially a handy, efficient conglomerate of various roles designed - like so many sidekicks and love interests in movies past - exclusively to serve in support of our hero. To prop him up, to save him. Manny is Hank's proxy, recreating and re-playing his most lucid memories. He is Hank's therapist and his best friend. His child and his parent. Not to mention his means of travel (he rides Manny's fart-powered corpse like a jet-ski to more fertile ground), and his compass (Manny's erection points the way), and his source of water, and his weaponry.

What makes this particular collection of old Sundance standbys endearing - and at times powerful - is the peculiar direction from which they come. Writing/directing team Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (billed simply as "Daniels") employ a childish sense of humor and naive worldview as a backwards way of treating its subject matter very seriously. Using corporeal metaphors to examine emotional breakthroughs and psychological insights may seem both too direct and too ludicrous to work, but the filmmakers somehow pull it off. Despite their propensity to construct the movie too much like a trailer for itself - relying on too many big, soaring, triumphant crescendos - Kwan and Scheinert have such a fierce commitment to their ideas that their distinctive voice is never in question, only the wisdom of some of their late choices.

But weren't we working backwards? Right. So, to take it all back to the beginning, the film opens with Hank marooned on a beach, with a self-made noose tied around his neck. His suicide attempt - seemingly a result of the hopelessness of his physical circumstances as much as, or more than, any depression or torment - is interrupted by the sudden appearance of the corpse lying on the beach, its each and every postmortem fart disrupting the tragic serenity of Hank's purported final moments. That corpse soon becomes his quite accidental salvation. Except even our impressions of that fact, and that whole opening scene, are re-calibrated once we get to the end.

And it really does come down to that ending - which in its design is actually pretty interesting, even ballsy, at least in theory. Except for the flagrant mishandling of it. I can't decide if the ending is more of a catastrophe if the filmmakers know exactly what they're saying and are saying it anyway - expecting us to take its final misguided gesture at face value - or if they simply have no idea, and/or think they're saying something else altogether. (Both options are awful, so I'm probably splitting hairs.)

They essentially give us a variation of the famous (or in some circles, infamous) ending of a particular comedy classic, except slathered with fake sentiment that suggests Kwan and Scheinert don't appreciate (or even comprehend) the implications of what they've just revealed. The film makes triumphantly sentimental what in fact is, and must be, disturbing. There almost seems to be an implicit inability to separate the truth that we now know from the standard formula of this type of protagonist and this type of narrative. There's such a delicate line between success and failure that this whole thing - the entire film, up to and including its late revelations - could have paid off if only certain filmmaking choices in the final scene had been handled differently. That one look on one character's face. The climactic musical choice. Instead the final moment is so thoroughly false - designed to give us a feeling that is in direct opposition to reality of this story - that it's borderline immoral. I can't go into any more detail than that.

That final scene pushes Swiss Army Man into "noble failure" territory. As it happens, I like noble failures, and this is a fascinating one. There may be no ending I hate more all year, but that doesn't change the fact that there will also be no other movie like Swiss Army Man I'll see all year. That's more than I can say for most.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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