Image Credits: A24 Films

More Human Than a Human: Swiss Army Man Brings the Absurdity

By Christian Leonzo - Aug. 15, 2016, 8:00 AM

Walking into the theater, I had a good idea of what to expect from music-video and short-film wunderkinds Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, better known as the directing duo The Daniels. They’ve directed some of my favorite music videos from the last decade, for bands such as Passion Pit and Battles, as well as their most viral video, DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s Turn Down for What. What I’ve gathered from the music videos they’ve directed is that The Daniels have a fastidious eye for special effects that are grounded in practicality. Each of their music videos is crafted with a level of detail that exceeds most Hollywood films in terms of what the special effects accomplish—by keeping a low-profile approach to effects, The Daniels convincingly and sparingly use their effects for maximum results. These special effects are crafted with the same energy and primacy of fellow music-video-director-turned-film-director Michel Gondry’s work, but The Daniels like to weave realism into their effects. As a result, the viewer is fantastically deluded into thinking it’s impossible to discern between reality and special effect.

The Daniels’ feature-length debut, Swiss Army Man, boasts an ingenious title that aptly describes both the function of one of the main characters and the absurdity of the entire movie. My expectations for the film were bolstered by my familiarity with and appreciation for their repertoire of practical special effects, their audacious and absurdist treatments, and their tendency to put a tasteful dose of twee into all the music videos they’ve directed. Swiss…army…man. Just the juxtaposition of those three words seemed like a non sequitur, and when I heard of the walkouts during the Sundance premiere, my ears perked up even further.

When I attended a screening of the film last weekend, I was anxious to see what The Daniels could accomplish on a larger canvas and with a larger budget. But what surprised me the most about Swiss Army Man was just how sincere the entire film is. The weird and peculiar concept is as follows: a suicidal young man named Hank, played by Paul Dano, is isolated on an island and encounters a corpse washed ashore. Played straight by Daniel Radcliffe, the corpse—we find out—was once named Manny. When Hank discovers that Manny’s corpse is sentient, yet permanently in a state of rigor mortis, Hank strikes up a friendship with Manny out of a necessity to survive the elements. It may seem nonsensical that a corpse could be a survival tool rather than a burden, but Manny’s dead body has the ability perform certain physical acts that enable Hank to endure, such as fart—yes, fart—continuously to propel Manny through the water like a crude, corporeal jet ski, with Hank riding on top as he travels to shore.

Manny’s fantastical feats are in the exact same vein as The Daniels’ previous high-concept music video treatments, and these special effects have the uncanny ability to mimic a weird kind of reality. But what elevates The Daniels’ use of whimsical special effects is the sincerity by which two men learn to process their pasts and build a new foundation with which they can navigate society, disregarding their insecurities.

The joy for the viewer is in seeing Hank stumble upon each superhuman ability of which Manny’s corpse is capable. For instance, Hank repurposes Manny’s jaw as a cutting tool, chopping wood with it in a mechanized fashion. But my favorite is his ability to launch any item lodged in his throat, such as a javelin tied to a rope, which ends up acting like a poor-man’s grappling hook. These sort-of madcap abilities allow Hank to survive out in the wilderness and bond with Manny, who cherishes helping a friend out. The uncanniness of each ridiculous and illogical bodily skill is something special, and I think singular to the directing duo.

The Daniels have grown and developed their sensibility to move beyond the high-wire ideas relevant in all the music videos they’ve directed. Yes, Daniel Radcliffe is a farting corpse acting as a Jet Ski. But The Daniels have shown in Swiss Army Man that they are ready to expand their voice into narrative filmmaking and develop a newfound emotional core that’s somehow whimsically saccharine, tastefully twee, and artfully what-the-fuck.

Christian Leonzo’s film addiction started in seventh grade with a dual screening of The Silence of the Lambs and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. He went on to serve as co-artistic director of UVa’s film club OffScreen, which shows foreign, classic, and independent movies to the Charlottesville community.