Swiss Army Man and the State of Modern Entertainment
Since its initial screenings at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, audiences and critics have come to a rare consensus about the film Swiss Army Man: it's impossible to categorize. Apparently, this predicament was troubling enough to make the movie notorious for the noticeable amount of people that walked out during its initial screenings. At first glance this behavior seems strange, given that by now, the film has received generally favorable reviews, and gained somewhat of a cult status.
To empathize with these early audiences, we need to realize that they were going into this film with no context or expectations. The contrast between tones in Swiss Army Man can be stark, and often jarring. The first scene shows the protagonist, Hank (Paul Dano) at his wits end, attempting to hang himself on an apparently deserted island. His salvation comes in the form of a corpse played masterfully by Daniel Radcliffe that floats to shore, who manages to prove that he can even display his acting talents while playing dead. An episode of over-the-top flatulence from “Manny” the corpse, quickly thwarts the viewer's tonal expectations, eliciting laughter in the most innocent of ways. Hank comes to the realization that he can utilize this corpse's unique talents to his advantage, and Manny becomes his main source of survival.
Yet a corpse is merely a corpse, and while watching this film, the viewer might get suspicious that Hank's seemingly fortuitous situation is not all that it's cracked up to be. When Manny somehow gains the ability to speak to Hank, the knee-jerk reaction is to either conclude that Hank is slowly but surely going insane, or that this movie is deciding to place itself in a universe where the laws of nature are easily broken.
Both of these interpretations face difficulty in light of the rest of the movie. If this movie wanted us to think that its protagonist’s faculties were dwindling, you would expect there to be a major "plot twist" reveal in the vein of countless movies. This never comes. Instead, the film revels in Manny's extraordinary abilities, each one less believable than the last. If we take the other route and conclude that this movie fails to represent "real life," we're also in a pickle. Without giving important plot points away, it eventually becomes clear that there is nothing supernatural about the world of Swiss Army Man. While some movies certainly hold back from answering major questions viewers might have (I'm looking at you Inception), this one doesn't seem to attempt to 'befuddle' the viewer. We simply are left to conclude that this movie is comfortable, and even thrives, with the contradictions it suggests.
Even Swiss Army Man's score, a feature of movies that people often overlook, is highly original. Lines of dialogue from the film bleed seamlessly into songs, many of which are purely a cappella. The music in this film serves as an unusually creative example of diegetic sound, where sound is experienced or produced by the characters in the movie themselves. This gives Swiss Army Man an intensely organic tone, as various sounds in Hank's environment coalesce into a full-blown musical mosaic. This consistent theme of the blurring between reality and fantasy is also symbolized musically: the sounds experienced by the characters themselves can be classified as "real," while it's difficult to consider the fully blossomed musical piece as existing within the universe of the characters.
The entirety of the film weaves between scenes of profound joy, visceral sorrow, and ridiculous laugh-out-loud humor. While one might be put-off by the juxtaposition of clashing tones, we should consider the possibility of embracing this form of entertainment. Life is full of instances where a moment of despair is abruptly followed by a reason for jubilation, and vice-versa. A film that is able to cover a significant range of the human experience is in some ways more relatable, and a more fulfilling type of entertainment.
For much of the short history of movies, the theater was a place to go to escape from the banalities of everyday life, and experience something truly otherworldly. Audiences were astounded by early films like Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon that featured fantastic creatures and seemingly impossible situations. The otherworldliness that people crave is still fulfilled in large doses with massively successful movies such as Marvel's endlessly profitable Avenger's universe.
On the other hand, times certainly have changed. Paradoxically, because we are inundated with so much cinematic content that revels in the otherworldly, we cherish entertainment that feels like a reflection of real life. Going to the movie theater is no longer an escape when we are bombarded on all fronts by the latest Hollywood box-office topper; we can easily dive into Netflix's ever-expanding pool of original content. Even in the world of television comedy, we’ve seen a recent smattering of shows beginning with The Office, that strike a balance between dry sarcasm and warm, personable characters that formed complex relationships. People crave a sense of sincerity, something that gets lost if a film or TV show solely relies on pushing the boundaries of the imagination, or delivering line after line of razor sharp sarcasm and irony.The modern consumer is no longer engaged by what this world lacks, but yearns to be reminded of the thrills that life has to offer.
Despite its somewhat silly and arbitrary premise, Swiss Army Man feels like the perfect movie for the jaded film appreciator of 2016. It’s gorgeous filming, outstanding acting, and profound themes overshadow the fact that it fails to follow traditional film practices. Not only is it a breath of fresh air in the age of franchises that are endlessly rebooted, but Swiss Army Man gives viewers the opportunity to reflect on the emotional breadth of life, something people may not realize they have been missing in the first place.