***½/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras A
starring Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
written and directed by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan
by Walter Chaw Bridging the gap between Charlie Kaufman movies, the Daniels' Swiss Army Man is one high-concept conceit carried through to every possible ontological end. It veers, dizzily, between slapstick scatalogical comedy and poignant existential philosophy, doing so with the sort of invention generally credited to silent-film clowns. Open with Hank (Paul Dano), shipwrecked, about to hang himself when he notices the corpse of Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washed ashore. He looks for signs of life. There aren't any, save the rapid decomposition that's causing Manny to fart. A lot. Manny's farts carry Hank back to civilization, in fact, in a trailer-spoiled motorboat sequence that would be indescribable were it not right there. Like so many things in the film, it's not clear that this is "actually" happening or just a fantasy of Hank's before dying. By the middle of the picture, it's apparent that challenging the border between the cinema real and the cinema imagined is the point. If it destroys that conversation, it allows for a better one about the nature of friendship and honesty, whether it's possible to ever truly be open with another human being and, if it is, whether it would be something welcomed or rejected. Unconditional acceptance is a charming romantic fantasy, but that's all it is.
As Manny comes to fulfill the promise of the title by being a multi-purpose tool, the Daniels literalize the metaphor. If the film is about Hank's symbolic journey back to a kind of life, Manny is more than just a psychopomp: he's the means and the destination. At the end, when their personas briefly transpose and Manny becomes a more literal partner, the film has done such a good job of setting expectations that the transition isn't jarring. There are other curious flashes. Hank seems to be taking on Manny's memories at one point, and Manny whispers, "So this is the life that I've forgotten." Later, while explaining the taboo thrill a previous generation held in illicit copies of the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Swimsuit Edition, Hank tells Manny that "girls used to be more special." There's heartbreak in these observations--heartbreak, too, of the Daniel Clowes variety when we see Hank pining after Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) along his daily commute, incapable of making a connection, reduced to taking surreptitious pictures of her with his phone and stalking her on Instagram. His longing for connection is the carrot that leads him back to society. Swiss Army Man is the better version of Cast Away, where Wilson begins to talk back. The difference is that Hank, given the chance, would likely choose to be cast away. Indeed, he already has.
Hank is an interesting choice for a hero. He's creative--brilliant, even, in the way he recreates scenes from his life out there in the wilderness with a certain Swiss Family Robinson ingenuity. Late in the game, someone will wonder at his sculptures and architecture. It's Caden's play in Synecdoche, New York: the city rebuilt in a hangar, the better to reflect the insular loneliness of the introvert in a crowd. Hank's role is as mentor to the childlike Manny. He teaches him about masturbation. He educates him in social decorum and realizes that all of the tricks people use to get along with each other stand in the way of people getting to know each other--to get to the heart of matter, in the Walt Whitman sense. There's a sequence I've seen in other films (notably Reign of Fire and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome)--and loved every time--where Hank does a shadow-play reenactment of the movies he believes Manny should try to remember in order to make him a more complete human. "If you don't know Jurassic Park," he tells Manny, "you don't know anything." Swiss Army Man examines the fragments that make a person and wonders at the gaps between the ruins that require some form of glue to hold it all together. The picture finally falls apart when, with one reaction shot, it betrays the sketch-comedy self-loathing it's avoided the rest of the way. It doesn't do what it's supposed to do because it doesn't know how to end, but until that moment, which happens in the last five minutes, it walks an impossible tightrope with unholy chutzpah. Testament to the goodwill it's built to that point that there's an extraordinary amount of humanity even in the stumble. Originally published: June 30, 2016.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Shot with a variety of high-end digital cameras in 'scope, Swiss Army Man makes its way to Blu-ray in Canada from d films in a 2.40:1, 1080p transfer with understated colours and lovely, glassy detail. The film has a cyan-suffused palette as if to convey the lost-at-seaness of the characters' plight (or perhaps to suggest cadaverousness), but the overlay is by no means opaque and doesn't seem to adversely affect contrast or dynamic range, both of which are quite rich. Faux-grain was added to the image by DP Larkin Sieple with a blessedly light touch--just enough so that the comparatively gritty flashbacks and dream sequences don't look contrived. I can't imagine a better presentation of this material. The 7.1 Dolby TrueHD core of the Dolby Atmos audio is loud and vibrant, with some spectacularly deep low-end and a dreamy transparency. Still, much of the mix was designed for overhead speakers (see below), and most current set-ups--mine included--simply can't give it its apparent due. Another track houses a feature-length commentary with the writing-directing pair of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, production designer Jason Kisvarday, and sound mixer Brent Kiser. It's the kind of navel-gazing yakker that only first-timers record, full of minutiae about the circumstances of the day that's difficult to invest in as an outsider. Still: convivial. And I would watch the shit out of their proposed sequel, whether they're being tongue-in-cheek or not.
Noted in the finest, smallest print on the packaging, a third track features the film without music, in DD 5.1. The Daniels call this listen "existential" in their brief audio intro; I call it film criticism. They single out the stupidity of the climax with just dialogue and fx: In the absence of contextualizing music, it's a montage of people loitering. Video-based extras begin with "Swiss Army Man: Behind the Scenes" (17 mins., HD), a B-roll compilation with voiceover from select members of the crew, including Sieple. Most of the footage revolves around the various dummies that doubled Daniel Radcliffe, which range from creepily realistic to a disembodied butt. What the piece perhaps aims to prove is that so much of what one would assume is CGI was shot practically (such as the motorboat sequence and the fire stunts), though it's also a love letter to a close-knit production whose sometimes drippily sentimental narration gives it the feeling of a video meant for private screening at the wrap party. "Swiss Army Man: Making Manny" (3 mins., HD) is another dummy-focused featurette, but this one's a time-lapse construction of the particular "Manny" that had the honour of going on tour to promote the film.
A lengthy "Q&A with the Filmmakers" (67 mins., HD) finds a representative from Dolby moderating a conversation between the Daniels, Kiser (introduced as the "sound designer," although Andrew Twite has that credit on screen), and, eventually, co-composers Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, whose score was almost entirely vocally-generated. Swiss Army Man was one of two recent films to win the Dolby Family Sound Fellowship (Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the other), an award that provides Sundance-bound filmmakers a chance to do their final mix in Atmos. (Movies are chosen based on their potential to exploit the format.) An object-based as opposed to a channel-based system, Dolby Atmos enables audio engineers to localize sound elements anywhere within a 3-D space, and the team behind Swiss Army Man took to it like kids in a candy store. These guys are pretty kooky company--Kiser wears a bright yellow hipster beanie and poncho, like he's doing cosplay as Lego Clint Eastwood--and probably spend too much time waxing philosophic about farts (drink every time the Dolby guy blushes), but I came away with a greater appreciation for the movie's aural complexity.
Lastly, there's a 9-minute block consisting of five Deleted Scenes (HD). Frankly, the movie is so repetitious and has so many little non-sequitur cutaways that, with one glaring exception, none of them felt new to me. The one that's noteworthy has Mary Elizabeth Winstead doing line-readings for her onscreen daughter to parrot back. Winstead is incredibly patient and maternal as the girl's interest in the task at hand waxes and wanes; this is a rare and fascinating glimpse of what it's like to work with child actors, as well as a reminder of the value of supplementary content--something streaming platforms threaten to extinguish. Trailers for The Neon Demon, Green Room, and A Tale of Love and Darkness cue up on startup of the d films platter. Lionsgate's U.S. release adds a download voucher but is otherwise identically-configured.