Monday 3 October 2016

Swiss Army Man

Manny Decay

Swiss Army Man
2016 USA Directed by Daniels
UK cinema release print.

I got hooked into the idea of seeing Swiss Army Man right from the first time I saw the trailer a fair number of months ago on the internet. Unfortunately, not that many cinemas in London were showing it other than at silly times I couldn’t make it so, in the end, I took a shorter trek out to London Fields station and saw it at the Hackney Picture House which, I have to say, is a pretty nice cinema, despite the ticket prices. They also seem to be showing a load of movies my local Cineworld wouldn’t normally show so... think I’ll be going there a few more times a year now I know about it and how easy it is to get to.

I saw this film on a late Saturday morning performance and, even for a morning slot, this movie wasn’t exactly packed. In fact, there was only one other person in the screening I saw so I’m not sure what the box office returns on this one are going to look like.

Although the film at first appeared to be absolutely up my street, I did find the uncompromising vision of the two writer/directors,  Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert to be taking me just a little outside of my comfort zone at times... which is something I never thought I would ever hear myself saying about any movie which got a commercial release at the cinema. That being said, uncompromising vision is exactly what we need more of in today's bland and blasé cinematic world and so I can only applaud the cast and crew who worked on this.

The film centres on two main protagonists. One is Hank, played by Paul Dano, who starts the film stranded on a desert island and about to take his own life. However, just before he does the deed, he sees the corpse of Manny, the title character played by Daniel Radcliffe, washed up on the shore and, after a second false start at suicide, begins to bond with Manny when he uses the "is he really dead?" corpses prolifically natural gases to propel his body through water as he rides him like a speed boat. This gets him to land but still far away from civilisation and, after a while, Manny starts to manifest other super powers such as being a water dispenser for Hank and then, not so long after that, starts talking and recovering certain senses.

The film, then, becomes a road movie as the two try to find their way to civilisation. Of course, as Hank teaches the amnesiac, living dead corpse of Manny (who demonstrates many different uses and skills, just like a Swiss army knife, throughout the course of the picture) about the nature of life, the film becomes more about the examination of the road that brought Hank to the point where he was about to kill himself and looks at the way life in general impacts on people and leaves damage which not everyone sees is there.

It’s an inventive little story and filled with a lot of charm, that’s for sure. It gets very moving at times as the two discuss love and rejection and, ultimately, you wonder if the desert island at the start of the picture is not just a metaphor all along for Hank’s outlook on life and the place his mind has taken him to.

It’s also brilliantly shot with the directors finding some interesting framing and movement as the picture progresses... they’re also not afraid to focus your attention on something small and sometimes, that acts almost as a magnifying glass for the dialogue exchanges between Hank and Manny if you’re eyes are focused fixedly on one tiny part of the screen. One shot where a lot of forest is in close up, for example, blew me away as the two main protagonists are framed in the background through some trees and take up maybe just 5% of the screen. I don’t know how that shot will look to anyone watching on home video but at the cinema it was fantastic.

It goes without saying that a film which focuses primarily, for 99% of its running time, on just these two characters, needs actors who are really at the top of their craft and both Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe are more than up for the task... especially Radcliffe who has to be giving what is probably going to be the most unusual performance of his life... and any other actor’s, for that matter. I was already impressed by his performance in Victor Frankenstein (reviewed here) but what he does here is really amazing and, frankly, a brave move for any actor, not just somebody who is perhaps known to billions as the face of Harry Potter. There’s also a nice bit of supporting work from "my favourite actress who takes on cool horror and sci fi genre roles"... Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who plays the light at the end of the tunnel that keeps both characters going on their mission to return to civilisation as she becomes the not so healthy object of their collected desire. The last ten minutes or so also has cameos from composer Andy Hull, who provided the film's wonderful acappella score, and director Shane Carruth, who made two wonderful films called Primer and Upstream Colour (reviewed here).

It has to be said that, Swiss Army Man isn’t quite my cup of tea for personal reasons I won’t go into here but, having said that, you do have to admire the lack of explanation given about the title character and the single mindedness of the writers to craft their story their own way with what looks like little or no interference taken from the studios to be a more commercial product. I’m pretty sure a lot of audience members might be turned off by this movie in certain moments as it plays out and if I’d had seen this in a bigger collective audience than two people, I wouldn’t have been surprised if there would have been a number of walkouts like their were when it had its Sundance premier, from what I understand. But you know what? That’s okay. That’s what art is all about. This isn’t about number crunching pounds and dollars... this is about what all films should be about (and are in some ways but they are almost always severely compromised in this)... making something personal and creative which will make people think. As far as that’s concerned, this is a very successful film.

So... did I like Swiss Army Man. Well, yes and no. I think it’s a great film which I just didn’t happen to fully lock minds with but, obviously, I don’t see that as a failing of the film. I do know that it’s a film which does a very rare thing... shows you some stuff you are probably unlikely to have seen done on celluloid before (or even the horrible, modern day digital equivalent)... give you something new. As such, I think cinephiles around the world will probably dig this one a lot and, despite my own ambivalent reaction to it, I’d give it a hard recommend if you want to see something new which has been put together, no matter how vulgar in its wallowing in biological function, in as skillful a manner as you're likely to see. This is the kind of movie that cinema is all about... go see it.

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