SWISS ARMY MAN, US, 2016, Starring Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Directed by Daniels/ Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert. 97 minutes, Rated M (Crude humour, sexual references, coarse language)
Probably, a Swiss Army Man, with his Swiss Army Knife, might be ready for any difficult situation he finds himself in. But, probably not nearly as difficult as the situation Hank (Paul Dano) finds himself in, stranded on a remote island in the Pacific, despairing, the noose around his neck, his feet slipping and dangling… as he notices a body floating ashore.
Are we supposed to think about Robinson Crusoe, and wonder whether the stranded body will be a Man Friday? Are we supposed to supposed to remember Tom Hanks and his ball, Wilson, in Castaway? Given that the two writers and directors of this film have made some comedies with the touch of the absurd, it seems quite likely.
The dead man is Manny, giving Daniel Radcliffe extraordinary opportunity to play dead and, at various times, a living dead, though not a zombie. Hank is overjoyed at the possibility of a companion, even enjoying a jet-propelled excursion over the sea and back to the beach.
It is probably important to focus on the background of the jet-propelling. All the reviewers and, one presumes, all the viewers, will have something to say about Intestinal gases.They recur, and recur, and often noisily and prolonged, stomach rumblings and farting. In fact, they are a symbol or a sign of life. So, Manny seems to have some life in him even though he is expelling it.
Hank, in his excitement, carries Manny around the island, up the cliffs into a cave, propping him up, excited when Manny open is his eyes and begins to speak. As, Claude Rains says at the end of Casablanca, “this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship”! And, it is.
From these paragraphs, readers will note that there is a touch of realism and more than a touch of the surreal – with the screenplay moving into fantasy. And so the question of who is really dead and who is really alive? Depending on your psychological predilections, interpreting these events from a Jungian point of view or a Freudian point of view, it could be said that the interplay between the two characters is Hank having dialogue with Manny as his inner self.
Hank is on a quest, even though he admits that as he began to hang himself his life did not appear before his eyes. Rather, what he has needed is this interplay between Manny and himself, Manny having no memories of his own, Hank being persuaded to talk about himself, his parents, his growing up, his shyness, the image of Sarah on his mobile phone and his taking it surreptitiously in a bus. A sex magazine provides the occasion for discussions about sexuality, about male response, erections and masturbation.
In the interplay between the two, Hank enters into some kind of role-play where he tries to identify with Sarah and Manny responds, indicating some issues of sexual identity as well as of friendship.
For most of the film, it is a blend of comedy and drama, a two-hander. A number of other people do come into the film at the end, especially Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Sarah. But, by this stage, our imaginations have been exercised, making us wonder about locations and the island and a forest, the attack of a savage bear, Manny and his being considered dead, Hank’s father coming on the scene – as well as medics, police, and a television interviewer and camera crew.
On the one hand, a lot of the dialogue reminds us of our mundane human life. On the other hand, from death to life, this interior dialogue, touches on the existential themes of being human.
Needless to say, some audiences have walked out – while many others are putting it on their list of cult films.
Madman Released July 14th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.