an existentialist breakdown in film

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The first scene of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Sheinert's Swiss Army Man seems normal enough. Hank (Paul Dano) is about to hang himself after being stranded on an island somewhere in the Pacific. An unpleasant way to start a movie, you wonder why the Daniels decide to make this an introduction to the psyche of a leading character. However; his attempted suicide parallels how the main character sees himself; an underdog who craves human connection with no one back home to miss him. The eccentricities makes sense. His will to live returns when he spots a body (Daniel Radcliffe) who he names Manny on shore, and we see a glint of hope to silence loneliness not only on this deserted island, but in the depressing entirety of his life. 

His deprivations play out as he claims that somehow the body's appearance is a sign of his fate to survive. His change of heart shows us that a chance for a connection, a companion is what makes up his main goals in life. But when Manny turns out to be a corpse, Hank losses his hope a second time once again resorting to suicide to break free from his solitude. Within this tragedy waiting to happen, something miraculous occurs. Picture this: a lifeless body on a beach uncontrollably farting in the water, imitating the mannerisms of a motor boat. Hank realizes that this could be the answer to his escape on the island, and this is where the adventure begins. 

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The outcome of this realization is a surprisingly delightful scene of Hank riding the corpse as he farts his way across the ocean eventually ending up on forested terrain with signs of human life. There is a clear joy on Hank’s face at the prospect of finally going back home. This unveils the tones and themes soon to come further on into the movie. It is a tone that mimics elements of feel-good films, and the discomfort of black comedies. 

As the movie progresses, Manny shows more and more unusual traits within his body, allowing for the prolonged survival of Hank who dubs him as a "mult-purpose tool guy". Manny can store huge amounts of water in his body, start fires with his fingers, and use his penis as a compass to find their way back into civilization. Though out there, the Daniels execute these traits to prevent campiness and hyperbolized scenarios. Manny's thoughts display a high level of child-like curiosity, while making audiences tap into a mode of existentialist breakdown. His thought process balances what initially makes the movie an odd watch, thus preventing the film from being unappreciable. It becomes endearing, enticing, at times pitying, but nevertheless an admirable gem. 

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The Swiss Army Man is a movie about re-learning how to be, and what it is to be human. It is surprisingly sentimental. The chemistry Dano and Radcliffe translate on screen prevents their conversations about loneliness, love, accepting yourself, and humanity, feel like a sermon from a preacher during Sunday mass. Manny's lack of recollection from his past-life fortified the endearing qualities of their discussions. The banter between the two were what made this movie more than a silly survival film about a corpse doing strange things with a psychotic madman. 

The best moments of this movie were these interactions between the two characters, especially when Hank teaches Manny what the world is and simulates a love story between Manny and a girl named Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who he is led to believe is someone he knew in his past life. It’s these scenes that really gets to audiences, because it allows us to remember how beautiful and amazing the world is. Manny was a conduit for these moments. Seeing someone experience these moments for the first time makes you realize the beauty of your own life. This is a testament to Radcliffe, who was able to bring to life a corpse who become so human as the movie went on. 

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Hank’s life - as we find out - is plagued with fear and isolation. He is a person who rarely takes chances, whether that'd be talking to the cute girl on the bus or confronting the rough patches in his relationship with his father. It’s these traits in Hank that every person can relate to, because everyone feels that way. Dano does an amazing job of portraying a self-doubting and lonely guy. Not only does Manny provide tools for his survival and his way back home, he also provides a profound effect on Hank, making him re-think his life and question the status quo of normal behaviour at the same time that audiences do. 

It can be said that the film is not for everyone. Though scattered with beautiful cinematic moments between the characters, there are still very weird and silly parts in the movie that can undermine the message for some people. Consider that half the audience walked out on this film during it’s Sundance Film Festival premier. So advice to anyone who is willing to watch the movie, wanting to fully in enjoy it - and this can be said for any movie in general - is that you have to buy into the premise. The premise being that a farting corpse, can do weird and amazing things with his body that allows for someone’s survival. No matter how weird or uncomfortable it makes us feel, the point of cinema is to take us on different journeys and push our imagination beyond what we already know, and this movie definitely does the job.

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Ultimately the Swiss Army Man is enjoyable. It twists the buddy-comedy and survival genre, making it highly appreciable. The Daniels were able to create something beautiful by paring these two characters together. It was this choice that made the movie work. They were able to immerse me and make me believe in Hank, Manny and the world they created together; a great indicator for good direction and storytelling. In the end, the movie is an enriching tale of magical realism. It is a movie that manages to force people to re-evaluate their current outlook of life for the better. 


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