Swiss Army Man (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

The art of the tagline can sometimes outshine even the movie it’s trying to sell. For instance, this summer’s Kevin Hart/Dwayne Johnson buddy cop comedy Central Intelligence boasts the tagline, “Saving the world takes a little Hart and a big Johnson.” That is such a beautifully constructed one-liner that it’s difficult to believe the film it’s selling could possibly ever live up to it. The gallows humor flatulence comedy Swiss Army Man presents a similar conundrum in its two-sentence elevator pitch the director team Daniels employed to convince actor Paul Dano to star in their debut feature: “The first fart will make you laugh. The last fart will make you cry.” There’s an audacious ambition in trying to make an audience cry at a fart that I greatly respect (and, of course, find very amusing). I don’t think Swiss Army Man quite lives up to that promise (the first fart made me laugh and the last fart also made me laugh), but I admire the Daniels for trying to get me to find genuine heart in a dead body’s flatulence. It was a lofty goal.

Paul Dano begins Swiss Army Man as a lonely shipwreck survivor attempting to hang himself in order to escape the horrors of boredom & dehydration. The film takes its gallows humor quite literally as he’s hanging from a noose and is saved from his lonely island nightmare by a farting corpse that washes ashore before him. Daniel Radcliffe plays this gaseous corpse with dead-eyed deadpan, at first silently filling the role of Wilson in this indie pop version of Cast Away, but eventually holding his own against Dano’s troubled protagonist. Dano seemingly continues his unhinged Brian Wilson impression in an alternate universe where his Love & Mercy character makes friends with a flatulent corpse instead of turning into John Cusack. He fights through personal neuroses & sings sweetly to himself as a way to cope with a world he finds cruel & a body (or two) he finds embarrassing. Much of the film’s journey is in learning about Dano’s broken heart protagonist as he bounces his skewed, dysfunctional ideas about the world off of Radcliffe’s lifeless body. The other part of that journey is in learning just what that lifeless body can do. Besides producing violent, body-shaking farts, Radcliffe’s corpse can also start fires, produce water, ride like a jetski, fire like a gun, etc. Although dead, he’s a verifiable Swiss Army man, or as the characters put it in the film, a “multi-purpose tool guy,” one with a magical, boner-driven navigation system that helps Dano find his way home. He also finds the ability to speak, despite being very dead, and because he has no recollection of his life before he was a rotting sack of farts, Dano spends much of the film teaching him how the world works (as filtered through is own hangups & neuroses). More importantly, he teaches his undead buddy about the value of love.

Did I mention that Swiss Army Man is a heartfelt love story? Did I mention that it’s also a road trip buddy comedy? Did I mention that it’s also, improbably, a musical? The director duo Daniels first cut their teeth helming music videos and it shows in their reverence for this film’s Animal Collective-style indie pop soundtrack, which bleeds beautifully into the narrative with a significant sense of thematic purpose. They’re unfortunately a lot less confident on where to take the romantic implications stirring at the movie’s core, a very exciting, unexpected turn that unfortunately peaks early & fizzles out before any meaningful destination is reached in the final act. I don’t want to fault this farting corpse buddy comedy too much for losing track of its emotional core, but it does feel as if the film were flirting with a line of romantic ambiguity it simply didn’t have the nerve to follow through on, which was admittedly disappointing even though I enjoyed the film as a whole. Swiss Army Man is overly ambitious in so many ways. Not least of all, the film tries to answer the question, “What is life?” with a full-hearted sincerity that erratically alternates between optimism & pessimism at the flip of a switch. The undead half of the central duo is essentially a child, curiously admitting, “I have a lot of questions about all the things you just said,” while the neurotic, living half explains his personal philosophy about the way things work through a depressing adherence to societal norms, fear of embarrassment, and the Law of Diminished Returns, a special cocktail that leaves him forever lonely and more than a little bit creepy. It’s possible that Swiss Army Man didn’t follow through on all of its thematic inquiries because it bit off more than it could chew, but there’s certainly no shame in that kind of wide scope ambition.

I don’t think the Daniels’ promise of a climactic fart that could make me cry ever came close to being fulfilled, but Swiss Army Man is mostly successful anyway. There may be an emotionally-distancing dedication to absurdity & artificiality at the film’s core that might’ve prevented me from connecting too closely with its central relationship, similar to the arm’s-length scholarly absurdism of this year’s equally ambitious The Lobster. Swiss Army Man has something The Lobster doesn’t, though, and it mostly takes the form of violent, body-shaking farts. The movie is genuinely fun & free-flowing from front to end, even when it’s fixated on morbid topics like how the human body relieves itself & becomes organic garbage the second it dies. Daniel Radcliffe puts in a solidly entertaining performance as the film’s undead catalyst, somehow finding weird energy in a character who resembles the Frankenstein monster after a hearty dose of heroin. (Speaking of which, after Victor Frankenstein this makes two films in a row where the actor participates in a vaguely homoerotic zombie comedy, right? Weird.) His body is also solidly entertaining as it spits, shoots, ignites, launches and, duh, farts its path through an escalating gauntlet of minute-to-minute obstacles. Paul Dano also holds his own here with a mentally/spiritually broken weirdo archetype he’s become very comfortable portraying and the always-welcome Shane Carruth & Mary Elizabeth Winstead both briefly poke their heads in just to remind you that they’re always getting involved in weird outlier projects and that you love them for it.

The Daniels also toss in a handful of reverent references to Jurassic Park & other Spielbergian fare (the Spielberg-produced Cast Away obviously among them) in a way that hammers home the idea that they love the movies & they’re giddy that they got away with making one about a farting corpse with a magical boner. They also nearly got away with making said farting corpse picture a teary-eyed romantic journey, but fell just short of that distinction. Overall, though, Swiss Army Man is far more memorable for its humor & ambition than its third act narrative shortcomings. I really enjoyed their debut, but I’m convinced the Daniels will have even better films coming down the pipeline once they learn to listen to their hearts the same way they ask the audience to listen to their farts. In the mean time, it just feels good to laugh along the scatological bleakness & divine absurdity they’ve constructed here. It’s okay that both farts made me laugh. I like to laugh.

-Brandon Ledet

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

disaster

fourstar

One thing that’s always disturbed me about “doomsday preppers” & “survival” enthusiasts is that they always seem to be perversely looking forward to the post-apocalyptic scenarios they’re supposedly preparing against. When preppers warn of possible end-of-the-world scenarios that will tear society to shreds, the first thing that always comes to mind is the question “Who would want to survive that?” Whether the world as I know it ends by zombie outbreak, alien attack, or (most likely) nuclear fallout, I’d honestly rather die that pick through the wreckage with the paranoid, power-hungry bullies who had been anticipating that downfall. Apparently I’m not alone in that opinion.

10 Cloverfield Lane is less of a “sister film” sequel to the (shrill, annoying, insufferable) 2008 found-footage sci-fi horror Cloverfield & more of a tense, horror-minded thriller about the monstrous spirit lurking within doomsday prepper culture. I’m not sure that it’s the first film to depict the selfish nastiness & misanthropy at the heart of “survival” types in the context of the horror genre, but it’s the first I’ve seen and it’s damn effective. After a brutal car accident, a young New Orleans woman (played by Faults‘s un-deprogrammable cult fanatic & Scott Pilgrim’s mall punk girlfriend Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds herself chained to the wall of a mysterious basement wearing only her underwear. Her captor (played by a beyond terrifying John Goodman in what might be a career-high performance) attempts to convince her that she’s “lucky” to be contained in his bunker because “there’s been an attack” & “everyone outside [the shelter] is dead.” Skeptical of her captor’s “generosity” & the idea that “getting out of [there] is the last thing [they] want to do”, our hero carefully attempts to piece together exactly what the strange man wants her for, what’s waiting for her in the outside world, and what’s her safest, most expedient form of escape. 10 Cloverfield Lane keeps the answers to these questions shrouded for as long as possible, but one thing is certain throughout: whatever monstrous threat is waiting outside the shelter could not be has as awful as the one running the show within.

Part of the reason 10 Cloverfield Lane is such a great film is that it’s the exact opposite of its predecessor. Ditching the shaky cam blur that made Cloverfield such a nauseous mess, the film adopts a very grounded, straight-forward visual style that recalls William Friedkin’s masterful stage play adaptations Bug, The Birthday Party, and The Boys in the Band. More importantly, the first Cloverfield film never developed its characters beyond shrill archetypes fleeing danger. When someone’s endlessly shrieking “Rob’s got Beth on the phone! Rob’s got Beth on the phone!” and you don’t know or care who Rob & Beth are, it’s difficult to be anything but annoyed. 10 Cloverfield Lane, by contrast, locks its audience in a basement with a small cast of fearful doomsday survivors suffering under the power dynamics of the cycles of abuse. It’s much easier to be engaged by a film on an emotional level in that kind of scenario.

There is something very essential that both Cloverfield films share, however: the overwhelming power of their central mysteries. If these two films are to be understood as a loose anthology, it’s the basic trick of keeping the audience in the dark that binds them. 10 Cloverfield Lane ups the ante by not only clouding the truth about what exact outside force is looming as a threat over its proceedings (zombies, Russians, Martians, nuclear war, and mutant space worms are all suggested at some point), but also introducing a complexly monstrous threat from within the characters’ ranks that is simultaneously abusive, protective, and difficult to understand. The film’s woman-in-captivity terror is far from unique (actually, it seems to be somewhat of a full-blown trend recently) but the way its Stockholm syndrome familial bonds & doomsday prepper cultural context complicates that narrative allows the film to crawl under your skin in a way that its predecessor never even approached, whether or not its threat was just as mysterious. All of this, a go-for-broke third act that throws all caution to the wind, an expert use of the Shondells classic “I Think We’re Alone Now” to boot. 10 Cloverfield Lane shook me, surprised me, and confirmed my deepest fears about “survival” nuts’ ugly thirst for post-apocalyptic power grabs. That’s far more than I could’ve expected from a “spiritual sequel” to a found footage horror I failed to enjoy all three times I gave it a shot.

-Brandon Ledet