Before her feature presentation (starring, naturally, a dead man) Jalina brought us a topical short called The Life of Death, directed by Marsha Onderstijn – apparently the only thing she has yet done.
It’s well worth the five minutes, and given how nicely this turned out, it would seem to be only a matter of time before we can see at least something else from Marsha.
Jalina’s feature presentation was a recent (2016) film co-directed by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan very aptly titled Swiss Army Man. Although they’ve been working together on shorts for about six years, I believe it is the first full-fledged feature for either. There’s a definite market for quirky filmmakers these days, so I’m sure we’ll be seeing more from them – and even those of us who didn’t love Swiss Army Man (raises hand) will be looking forward to it.
The premise of Swiss Army Man is – at least on the first face it presents to us – very simple. Hank, who has apparently been stranded on a deserted island for a long time has given up hope and is preparing to hang himself when a body washes up on the beach. In the hope of a companion he attempts to resuscitate the body, but his efforts are futile except in eliciting a good deal of flatus mortis from the corpse. Hank returns to his noose only to watch the surf take the body, which is evidently propelling itself with its own flatulence.
Immediately Hank hatches an idea, swims out, harnesses the body, and begins riding it like a jet ski at top speed across the ocean. You would think that this action, taken within the first five minutes of the film would kind of set the tone for how seriously the film takes itself. And you’d be both right and wrong. You’d be right in the sense that this movie is absolutely the fartiest movie in the history of cinema. I would not be surprised if in the 97 minute runtime of the film, there were 20 minutes of actual farting. (OK, that would probably be an overestimate, but still. Farty, farty movie.)
But you’d also be wrong, because you’d think that a movie in which a man rescues himself from a deserted island on a flatus mortis jet ski would not take itself very seriously or try to teach us life lessons or anything of the sort, but Swiss Army Man certainly does do those things.
After washing up on a remote part of the mainland, Hank discovers a few things about his corpse buddy. The first being that he doubles as a pretty effective water fountain (it’s fresh! it’s tasty!) and the second being that he’s starting to kind of maybe come to life a little bit.
The first, of course, is the reason for the movie’s title. The body, which eventually takes the name Manny, is able to provide many of Hank’s needs. He’s a jet ski, he’s a water fountain, he’s a NSFW compass, he can Heimlich launch/shotgun projectiles, his flatus mortis can be ignited…and he’s a companion. The bulk of the movie features the suicidal (and seemingly lonely and socially awkward) Hank trying to remind Manny what it is like to live. I think the symbolism is rife here.
One of the things that Hank wants to teach Manny about is love. Hank has a picture of a beautiful young woman set as the background on his not-quite-dead cellphone, and for some reason allows the burgeoning Manny to believe it is his phone and that she might have been his partner.
The film finally comes to a head with a now-ambulatory Manny carrying Hank up a hill back to civilization – coincidentally to the very backyard of the woman (named Sarah) in Hank’s cell phone. And here, the film really goes off the rails in my opinion.
Manny reverts to being dead, Sarah and her family call emergency personnel to take care of Hank, and the firemen discover that Hank’s cell phone has the stalkery picture of Sarah which raises more questions than it answers. Hank grabs the body, escapes back down the hill to the coast a very, very short distance away, where the police and photographers follow him and find his little living area where he has evidently been for a while. Right in stalker-central territory.
At this point, I was pretty upset with the movie for the simple reason that our “hero”, that lonesome, socially awkward, hopefully lovable loser that we all feel from time to time that may be an apt description of ourselves has evidently turned out to be nothing at all but a hallucinating creepy stalker.
Let’s be fair – for the entire movie, I assumed we were looking at something more than magical corpse. And yes, hallucinated friend was pretty darn high on my list of possibilities. Even so, the revelation seems to make you question the reliability of the majority of the film in a way that just didn’t work. Was he ever on a deserted island at all? Probably not. Was there actually a corpse? Probably? Did Hank kill him? Who knows? Now that we’ve spent the last 90 minutes being given lessons on life and society by this guy, should we disregard all of that imparted wisdom now that we know it came from a creepy stalker?
And to add the insult to this injury, at the end of the film what do you think happens? Manny, who has been dragged back to the shore takes on his full flatus mortis persona and motors off towards the horizon. In full view of everybody, who all clearly see it. So now we have a shared hallucination? Or should we take the entire film at face value? There really seems to be no good answer here.
There are movies that can pull off the unreliable narrator. I think a stellar example is Life of Pi, but there was a specific (and eventually revealed) reason that the narrator lied to us, and it was fundamental to the story. Here, I can’t say the same. I’m OK with the idea that Hank is hallucinating. I’m not OK with the idea that everybody else sees it.
When I saw the trailers for Swiss Army Man, the first thing that came to mind was one of my favorite movies of all time – Lars and the Real Girl. But I think where Lars got it right tended to be where it made different choices than Swiss Army Man. In Swiss Army Man we see the corpse as really interacting with Hank, whereas we see Lars interacting with a clearly inanimate doll. The world of Swiss Army Man consists almost exclusively of Hank, who has withdrawn from society and is alone with nobody to help him (or who would want to for that matter), whereas Lars is actually a member of society – painfully awkward, shy, a reluctant participant, but nevertheless interacting with a community that cares about him and throughout the movie is doing everything it can to make him well. Hank turns out to be criminally creepy, Lars is a sweet guy who had a little bit of a breakdown. Most important, Lars knows exactly what it is as a film. Swiss Army Man seems very confused as to what it is. It wants to be a serious film, but it allows that to take a backseat to being a film that is really more about making farting body jokes. Is it any wonder that it goes off the rails at the end?