(The 2016 Sundance Film Festival is in full swing and we have boots on the ground as well as eyes on screener links for the whole festival! Stay tuned to Hammer to Nail as reviews start rolling in…)
Normally when I sit down to write a review, I’m doing so within my own personal bubble of opinion, with no outside influence. In the case of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Swiss Army Man, before I could see the film myself and shortly after its premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, a headline in Variety reductively describing the film became impossible to avoid. So going into the film, I had an inkling of what was to come but I didn’t really know that, while the Variety headline was technically correct, it didn’t remotely come close to really summing up what the film was, or the impact it was going to have on me.
Without giving too much away, Swiss Army Man gives us the story of Hank (Paul Dano), shipwrecked on an island and hopelessly depressed. Fearing he’ll never be rescued, Hank decides to end his life, which is right when another person (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on shore. As Hank’s heart swells with the hope of no longer suffering alone, he finds that his new companion is dead.
Or is he? The body starts to exhibit some odd signs of life, and Hank decides his life is worth living just a little bit longer, if for no other reason than to explore his own curiosity concerning this body, and what is really going on.
And that’s all I’m going to say about the plot (if you really want more details then I’m sure they’re out there), because a film this original and out-there works best when experienced with as little information going in as possible. It’s a film that rewards curiosity, sliding a life-affirming message into its strangeness. It is easy to connect to the film on a number of different levels, some profound and others ridiculous, if you’re open to the experience.
Which I absolutely was. Within the first ten minutes, I knew I was watching something fresh and creative, and even if I wound up hating it in the end, I needed to know where it was going. It was worth the journey, as absurd as it gets.
And it does get pretty nutty, but not without purpose. The film makes its main points using rather low brow ideas at times, but they’re also ideas that maybe not-so-surprisingly have a universal connection to the meaning of life. One of the takeaways for me, to really go for it and live your life, extends to the creation of film itself; the film takes chances because why shouldn’t it? What’s the point of making a film if all you’re going to do is play it safe and deliver something that we’ve all seen before?
Sure, sometimes the film feels like a collection of short films that were loosely connected just enough to expand into a feature, but overall that’s a minor gripe. I’ll gladly weather some inconsistencies here and there if what I get in the end is something this innovative and fun. I already can’t wait to see what the filmmakers do with their next film.
Swiss Army Man is the type of film that keeps me coming to film festivals. The chance to experience something so challenging and unique is worth the risk that you might not like the film in the end. I’m happy to say in this case, however, that I did enjoy the film, and can’t wait to experience it again.
– Mark Bell (@8MarkBell8)