Once upon a time, I co-taught a fine arts class at a residential treatment center for adolescents on the autism spectrum. And we decided to do filmmaking unit. One of my students--a driven, studious, and energetic kid who aspires to become the next Kurosawa--wrote and directed a really impressive dramatic film about a troubled kid in a group home (and, of course, it was mostly autobiographical). Its writing was so powerful, so personal, so visceral. I brought a friend--a filmmaker himself--to the premiere (our students showed their films to a small audience of parents, friends, staff, etc), and he said something like this:
"That kid has instincts. He's going to go to film school for a few years, and he might lose those instincts. And then for the next few years after graduating, he's going to have to work really hard to un-learn what they've taught him, so he can get back to doing stuff like this. This is really pure filmmaking."
That's how I feel about Daniels and Swiss Army Man.
Now, don't get me wrong. Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) aren't new to the game. And they're not kids: they've been to film school (Emerson College in Boston), and they've directed plenty of things before, like some strange and provocative short films (Interesting Ball, anyone?) and music videos--including Joywave's "Tongues," which is incredible (and definitely NSFW), Foster The People's "Don't Stop," The Shins' "Simple Song," and DJ Snake / Lil Jon's "Turn Down For What." But Swiss Army Man is their first feature film, and it's so fresh, earnest, and bold. Daniels' style is exciting and visionary--it manages to feel loose, unconventional, and authentic (despite being undeniably well-crafted and intricate).
Not every music video director who turns to feature filmmaking is able to transition successfully. It seems there are different "rules" in play: audiences will forgive a certain level of absurdity or stylistic excess when watching a music video, but will usually demand more narrative or thematic coherence when watching a film. Some flmmakers ignore that demand and just make overly-stylized nonsense, ignoring emotional resonance or narrative continuity for the sake of a moment, a rhythm, or an aesthetic. Maybe there's a scale: folks like McG, Zack Snyder, or Michael Bay might be on one end of the spectrum; Anthony Proyas, Antoine Fuqua, F. Gary Gray, and Tarsem Singh might occupy the middle; meanwhile, auteurs like Jonathan Glazer, Anton Corbijn, Michel Gondry, and David Fincher feel like they're probably at the top (that is, they've been able to expertly apply the distinctive voices they'd developed from their music video roots to the unique demands of feature-length storytelling). And on the scale from McG to Fincher, Daniels' chances at joining the top ranks are looking really, really promising (Film Crit Hulk even wrote, with his signature all-caps enthusiasm, that "THESE GUYS ARE THE NEWEST EVOLUTION OF SPIKE JONZE").
So let's talk about what makes Swiss Army Man work so well.
I'm going to try to avoid telling you too much about any specific scenes. I don't want to rob the film of any of the ways in which its plot and its visuals are so consistently, delightfully surprising.
But I will say this: it's a film about a man named Hank and a talking corpse named Manny.
Maybe the corpse is a metaphor. (But also: it's literally a corpse.)
And maybe the film is a beautiful and thoughtful commentary about what it means to be human, about the lies we tell ourselves and others, about the meaning of friendship, about why we are ashamed of our own bodies, and about the terror of confronting our own mortality. (But also: it's got a lot of stupidly silly scatological humor.)
Is it high art or is it low art? Is it transcendent or is it juvenile? Is it saying something important about humanity or is it giggling about farts? I mean, all of the above, really.
Somehow, Swiss Army Man manages to straddle the line between silly and sublime ("for every stupid scatological thing," says Scheinert, "we had to double down on heart"). I believe this feat is accomplished for three main reasons:
- Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe give the performances of their careers. Dano's performance as Hank is equal parts anxiously manic, uncommonly thoughtful, deeply vulnerable, and disturbingly creepy. And Radcliffe's performance as Manny is incredibly complex, especially given that he's, well, a corpse. Despite being confined to such a flat range of affect (corpses aren't particularly known for having a variety of facial expressions or tones of voice), Radcliffe manages to convey curiosity, surprise, fear, self-doubt, anger, and even love. Both Dano and Radcliffe are simply amazing to watch. And the chemistry between them beautifully grounds the film, gluing its narrative and thematic elements together in what could have otherwise been an incoherent mess of weird ideas, crude jokes, and pop philosophy.
- The music! THE MUSIC. The music. It's charming and witty and exuberant--and in every scene that it's used, it's either perfectly matched or perfectly juxtaposed with the action on screen. It's wonderful.
- Swiss Army Man is a film that understands the power of effective blocking. Blocking doesn't just matter in action choreography; it matters in drama and comedy as well. Actors' bodies are more than just vehicles for their mouths to say lines of dialogue; their interaction with each other and their entrance in and out of frame can do wonders to non-verbally indicate their relationship to each other, to the development of the story, and to the audience (because the camera is always a character, whether you're breaking the fourth wall or not). The way you direct your actors' bodies to interact in a frame will determine the rhythm, the intensity, or the emotion, or the comedy of a scene. And Swiss Army Man really, really gets it. As I mentioned earlier, I can't give you specific examples without feeling like I'm spoiling the film's consistent, delightful sense of surprise.
When the film came out, Devin Faraci wrote that "it gets just about as close to the meaning of life as any film ever might," which is pretty strong praise. Do I agree? I think I might.
Swiss Army Man was, hands-down, my favorite film of 2016. It might even be one of the best (or at least one of the most daringly unique) films of the past few years. And every time I re-watch it (especially with new and unsuspecting crowds), it gets better.