Blu-Ray Review: SWISS ARMY MAN Is Still The Best Movie Of 2016

A heartbreaking work of staggering flatulence.

 

The Great Myth of 2016 is that it's been a terrible year for movies.

How anyone could say this within the same year in which we've been given Green Room, Hell Or High Water, High-RiseHunt For The Wilderpeople, Arrival, The Nice Guys, The Witch, The Invitation, Hail, Caesar! and The Jungle Book (just to name a few) is beyond me, but the sentiment's particularly off-base in a year that gave us Swiss Army Man. If the only two movies released in 2016 were Batman V Superman and Swiss Army Man, it still wouldn't be a terrible year for movies.

Like everyone else, I was intrigued and amused when I first heard about Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert's (known collectively as "Daniels") film. It's about a suicidal guy befriending a farting corpse? Really? And Daniel Radcliffe plays the corpse? The buzz that met the film's Sundance debut was not entirely positive - a good portion of the discussion was devoted to the number of walkouts the film received during its first screening - but for me, that was irrelevant. The logline alone was insane enough to guarantee my patronage, and as soon as Swiss Army Man hit Austin my ticket was purchased.

As it turns out, I was woefully unprepared for Swiss Army Man. I wasn't ready for the parade of universal truths (some painful, some hopeful) that it dumped in my lap. I wasn't prepared for how beautiful the film turned out to be. I wasn't prepared for the masterful performances, which debatably rank as career high points for its two stars, Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. I was not prepared to be so profoundly moved by it, or to be put in a position where I instantly had to restructure my list of the greatest movies of the decade. Swiss Army Man is a miraculous lightning bolt of a movie, the kind of thing I imagine we'll eventually credit for giving birth to an entire generation of filmmakers. It is impossible for me to overstate how much I love it.

After three viewings, I'm not even sure I can explain why I love it so much. But let's give it a go.

Part of it is definitely the unlikelihood of it all: this movie absolutely should not exist. It seems built from the ground up to alienate a substantial portion of any potential audience (my wife, as hardcore a horror nerd as you're ever likely to find, was flat-out disgusted by the entire premise), defies simple genre classification, and is not shy about saying some very bitter things about what it means to be alive (crucially, that bitterness is leavened by a determined innocence and a healthy dose of hope). It's also gleefully grotesque, scatalogical, and immature. Not only should the film not exist - according to conventional 'How do movies get funded?" wisdom - it should not work as well as it does. Quite frankly, it should be a mess. 

It's a testament to Kwan and Scheinert's talents that it is not. This is as remarkable and impressive a filmmaking debut as I can ever recall. I predict great things for these two, and am legitimately excited to be here to see their career kicking off in such style. One doesn't like to throw around the term "visionary" loosely, but how else would you describe the madmen who made this thing? The ingenuity and passion Daniels brought to this film is evident in every frame, from the hand-made effects to the multiple show-stopping set pieces (there's a sequence about midway through the film which takes place on a makeshift bus that is so goddamn beautiful, it brings tears to my eyes every time I watch it) to the balls-out courage it took to even attempt something like this. 

On top of all that, Swiss Army Man has actual shit to say. Yeah, it's weird and gorgeous and fearless, but it'd be an empty stylistic exercise were it not for the script (which, incredibly, was also written by Kwan and Scheinert), which casually rattles off one poignant observation after another about life, love, friendship, death, sex, loneliness, family and more. If a movie successfully communicated one or two of these observations, we'd be championing it as one of the year's most insightful films. But Swiss Army Man contains dozens of valuable life lessons; there is an uncommon level of wisdom on display on this film. Some of these observations are more profound than others, to be sure, but they're everywhere, and every time I watch the film I pick up something I didn't fully absorb during a previous viewing. I suspect that will be the case for quite some time. 

It's worth noting that Swiss Army Man will not be for everyone. Like a few of my other favorite films this year, Swiss Army Man is on a very particular wavelength, and it's not a universal one. The film demands that you buy into some big, silly ideas right upfront (I showed the film to one friend who immediately questioned whether or not a flatulent corpse could really be used as a jet-ski; this is not the headspace you want to be in for Swiss Army Man), and if you've got a weird thing about simulated corpses - which is apparently a thing, judging by the number of people I've spoken to who felt turned off by the trailer - it definitely won't be your bag. But for those with an open mind, a dark sense of humor and a history of embracing weirdness, know that Swiss Army Man will almost definitely be your jam. Such people are my people, and I like to think that Daniels made a film that will come to be something of a secret handshake between us. 

For all of these reasons and many more, this is hands-down my favorite film of the year. It deserves extensive consideration (this movie will be on heavy rotation in my home for the foreseeable future), it deserves awards consideration (name a person involved in the making of this movie, I don't care what they did; that person deserves an Oscar nomination), and it absolutely deserves a permanent place on your shelf. Buy Swiss Army Man with confidence, and enjoy having your mind blown by the most unlikely, heartbreaking, uplifting movie of the year.

PS: I hope "Montage" gets nominated for Best Song at this year's Academy Awards, not only because it's an amazing piece of music, but also because I'm super curious to see how they'd even stage and perform such a thing. 

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