Swiss Army Man

2016 / 95m - USA
Swiss Army Man poster

I recall there being quite a buzz surrounding the trailer for Swiss Army Man, but I'm not exactly big on trailers, and so I never got around to watching it. Instead, I just remembered the title and left it at that. In hindsight that was probably for the best, because the less you know about Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert's first feature film, the bigger the potential for a pleasant outcome. Swiss Army Man is a surprisingly original comedy, the kind that's severely lacking in American cinema.

screen capture of Swiss Army Man

There's certainly no lack of USA comedies, but most of them seem to fit some pre-defined niche. You have the Frat Pack films, there's Apatow's crew and Sandler's crew and if you zoom in on all their regulars and search their oeuvres for drama/comedies, you have a good overview of all the major dramadies. Add to that a plethora of derivative romcoms and just about every American CG animation ever made, and you have a pretty good overview of American comedy cinema.

What all these films lack is surprise. You see most jokes coming a mile off, simply because all these films adhere to their own, almost branded style of comedy. Hence, things become predictable, which isn't exactly an asset for comedy. There are some notable exceptions (think Wes Anderson, Solondz or Kevin Smith), but nothing as weird or baffling as Hitoshi Matsumoto's Symbol or Wisit Sasanatieng's Citizen Dog. At least, not until now, because Swiss Army Man is quite something else.

It's rather difficult to talk about the film without spoiling too much, because from the very get-go things are weird, and it never really settles down. The film starts with Hank Thompson stuck on a desert island (pop reference 101), ready to hang himself. Right before he takes the plunge, a man washes up on the shore. Hank halts his suicide attempt to investigate his new visitor, but it turns out the man is already dead. Disappointed, Hank gets back to his suicide, only then the corpse reveals itself to be of some use and Hank manages to escape the island.

screen capture of Swiss Army Man

You may fear this kind of originality could come at a price, but the overall presentation is remarkably polished. Swiss Army Man is no Avengers of course, even so the visual effects are on point, even convincing (which isn't all that trivial considering the weirdness put on display). The camera work is nice, giving the film a rather colorful and playful vibe and there's a constant play with light that injects a little extra shine. It all adds up to a very agreeable visual experience.

The soundtrack was a bit more problematic for me. It appeared to aim for a weird balance of indie/hipster whine and parody, but I never fully understood where they were going with it. It follows the popular trend of slowing down and deconstructing pop songs and turning them into more singer/songwriter-like music (with a dash of M83/Boards of Canada to boot), but doing it with a song like Cotton-eyed Joe is awkward. While it's possible they were just taking the piss (which would be in line with the rest of the comedy), I found it very difficult to tell as I'm just not too familiar with this genre of music.

As for the acting, nothing to complain there. Paul Dano is a certainty when appearing in films like these. At this point I'm not even sure if he's simply proficient at playing weird characters or if characters become weird when he plays them. The much bigger surprise was Daniel Radcliffe, who has been working hard to yank himself loose from his Harry Potter past. For me, it was the first time he actually succeeded in his goal. He's just perfect as the corpse (which I know sounds a little weird, but I swear there's no sarcasm in that statement). There's also a very small supporting role for Mary Elizabeth Winstead, but it's so negligible it's hardly worth mentioning. In the end it's just Dano and Radcliffe doing all the hard work.

screen capture of Swiss Army Man

Swiss Army Man starts with a bang, but the film is also somewhat of a one-trick pony. At first, I was kind of worried Kwan and Scheinert wouldn't be able to top that very first scene, but luckily that fear was unfounded. The film keeps throwing completely strange and awkward scenes at its audience, and it remains fresh and unpredictable from start to finish. The comedy is also smart and witty through-out, with just enough drama to keep an interest in the characters.

It's clear this is a film people need to discover by themselves. Not everyone is going to appreciate the peculiar sense of humor on display here, but Kwan and Scheinert deliver a film that is witty, smart, well-made, pure and most of all unique. Films like these don't come around very often and even though it's probably not a guarantee for a future successful career, Swiss Army Man is a film that will be treasured by many for years to come. Do yourself a favor and watch this one, the worst that can happen is that you don't like it. But if you do, chances are you're going to love this one to pieces.