Welcome, my friends, to the best movie of the year!
Premise: When a suicidal man on a deserted island finds a corpse, he realizes he can manipulate it like a swiss army knife, allowing him to save himself as well as the corpse.
About: Writer-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert have become rockstars of the short film and video world. You can see a sampling of their short film work here and here you can see the video (over half a billion hits) that launched them into the stratosphere. Swiss Army Man is their first feature. And if you go by reactions at Sundance, it either killed or killed any future chance of these two making movies.
Writers: Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Details: 97 minutes
I know this film has been out for awhile now. But I just saw it the other day and I think it’s the best movie of the year.
The hardest thing to do in this town is take risks. The studios are set up in such a way so that at every step of the process, there’s a formula for avoiding risk.
So when anyone goes against that grain, even if I hate the result, I have mad respect for them. Because I know how heavily geared the system is towards making sure these movies never get made.
While I was curious about Swiss Army Man (a best-friends-forever farting corpse movie?), deep down I expected it to be a disaster (a best-friends-forever farting corpse movie???). I knew the directors were talented. I knew they’d made some of the best short films of the decade.
But this was the feature world, where you can’t hide behind great cinematography, weird ideas, and clever special effects. You need an actual screenplay. And if we’re being honest, that’s where I expected them to implode.
But oh how they did not implode. Somehow, these short-movie-mavens made the feature format work for them.
For those unfamiliar with the film, it follows Hank, a young man whose boat sank in the middle of the ocean. Hank was able to make it to a deserted island, but has since grown suicidal due to extreme lonliness.
Luckily, right before he’s about to kill himself, he discovers a corpse washed up onshore. This is Manny. Or, was Manny. Or, is Manny. You see, Manny can actually speak. He’s dead, but the gases in his body allow him to operate on a primitive level.
I know, I know. Sounds ridiculous right? Believe me, part of watching this movie is saying time after time, “This shouldn’t be working but somehow it is.”
Hank uses Manny’s gaseous power (read: ability to fart) as an engine, riding Manny off the island to a new body of land, which is adjacent to a forest. Hank and Manny must traverse the forest to find civilization, but soon realize they’re lost.
So they hunker down and we follow their burgeoning friendship. Hank uses Manny’s strange powers to help them survive, and teaches Manny, whose death has affected his memory, all about life again.
The central storyline follows Hank teaching Manny about love, to the point where he dresses up as a woman and plays the part daily. This results in a pseudo-romance slash bromance of the likes you’ve never seen before. And yes, as crazy as this all sounds, IT SOMEHOW FUCKING WORKS.
So what can we learn about a movie where farting becomes the emotional climax? (no, I’m serious. Farting is the emotional climax. And it will leave you in tears)
Swiss Army Man takes the “Questions” approach to storytelling, which, while not as powerful as goal-oriented storytelling, works well when you’re dealing with character pieces (as long as you execute).
The driving question behind Swiss Army Man is “Will Hank and Manny end up together?” This is placed in doubt by the fact that Manny is dead. And there’s no guarantee he’ll live through all of this.
In addition to this, we’re constantly wondering if Manny is even animated. Has Hank constructed Manny’s animation in order to cope with his loneliness out in the middle of nowhere? Could Hank just be playing with a dead lifeless corpse this whole time?
As long as you can ask questions that the audience wants answer to, they will keep watching. And we want to know the answer to these questions.
Another huge part of the movie is Hank trying to teach Manny what love is. So that’s a third question that’s pushing us forward. While this seems like the least interesting of the three questions, it actually ends up being the strongest because the writers put so much emphasis on the storyline.
The fact that Hank is dressing up as a woman to help this dead soul understand love again ends up being an incredibly powerful choice.
Finally, the Daniels (our writer-directors) DO end up adding a goal – that of a girl Hank is in love with. We don’t know the exact nature of their relationship. But we sense she may be an ex-girlfriend or possibly even a current girlfriend. It’s this girl that drives Hank to find civilization again.
Of course, because nothing of what you see in Swiss Army Man is expected, the reality of this woman turns out to be completely different from the fantasy.
I HATE highlighting things in movies that don’t have to do with screenwriting because it doesn’t help you guys become better screenwriters.
But I have to point out that Swiss Army Man is part musical, as these two are constantly humming songs that add to their growing friendship. And this soundtrack isn’t just good. It’s amazing. The best soundtrack I’ve heard in years. No doubt this was an essential component to the movie being amazing.
Also, while I know the Academy will never reward a farting-corpse movie, I believe that Daniel Radcliffe deserves an Oscar for this role. The fact that he makes you fall in love with a farting corpse says everything. And it should also be an important reminder to writers everywhere to KEEP WRITING INTERESTING CHARACTERS that actors would want to play.
As an actor, you are never ever going to get a chance to play a character like this again in your life. And these are the kinds of things actors look for when they’re picking projects.
This movie will not be for everyone. Believe me. I fully expect some of you to tell me I’m crazy. But I’m sorry. This movie showed me that cinema hasn’t run out of ideas after all.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
What I learned: In character-driven scripts without goals (or with weak goals), make sure the story-driving questions are as strong as you can make them. They will determine whether we want to keep reading or not.