There was a time we never know that much about movies before they came out. A trailer (only in the theaters, mind) or a TV spot here or there, a write-up of a set visit in Entertainment Weekly and a Friday morning review in the local newspaper was just about all there was to go on before filing into the theater. These times are long gone, replaced by the democratization of industry coverage brought on by the internet, with trailers available to be watched as many times as possible with articles dissecting them frame by frame to pry loose even the most fleeting secrets. We watch movies with a subliminal checklist in our heads, waiting to tick off scenes from trailers and leaked footage as they come up, knowing there’s always more to come until that last moment comes by. Set photos and Comic Con panels drive the narrative, months or even years before anyone has the opportunity to see the final cut. There’s a subtle change that comes from this paradigm shift, as surprise turns to expectation. There is a notable difference between expectation and surprise. Both have their ups and downs; both can lead to positive and negative experiences in equal measure. But surprise when well implemented is often just a little bit sweeter.
Take, for instance, Swiss Army Man, the new film written and directed by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (or “Daniels” as they are credited at the film’s beginning and on promotional posters). Premiering at Sundance, it garnered a bit of buzz mostly as “that movie where Daniel Radcliffe plays a farting corpse.” Reviews, reactions and trailers would soon follow, but for some, the oddity of that logline is enough to get out to the theater. And they would find that the film also stars Paul Dano as a castaway named Hank, shipwrecked on a nondescript tropical island and planning to kill himself mostly out of boredom until Radcliffe’s absurdly gassy body washes ashore. What follows is perhaps the most unique road movie one could imagine, as Hank hauls the corpse (soon to be dubbed Manny) across the wilderness in search of home, civilization and the girl on the home screen of his rapidly dying signal-bereft phone (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
One must by coy, of course. To give away more of the plot would spoil the surprise (and spoiling the surprise in this particular article would be the height of lunacy). Thus the quandary: how does one talk about a fearlessly unique film like Swiss Army Man, giving it its full critical respect, without piercing the veil of an unmolested viewing experience? It is a thorny situation, as this film is an achievement of some distinction, especially from first time directors, its cup running over with preternatural confidence and almost overwhelming creativity. Swiss Army Man is ceaselessly surreal and often dreamlike, a journey of the mind and the body, devilishly clever and outrageously funny. It is all of these things and more, a gleeful new wrinkle hiding behind every corner.
It is quite unfortunate, then, that discussing Daniel Radcliffe’s performance in detail could give too much away (indeed, the fact that there’s even a performance at all for a corpse is perhaps tipping the hand a bit), for he almost certainly gives one of the turns of his career. In his post-Harry Potter life, Mr. Radcliffe has embraced diverse, self-effacing and often challenging roles on stage and screen, but nothing he’s done is quite like this. A committed and often inspired physical performance (highlighted by an incredible and delightful montage in the film’s second act that will surely be among the best sequences of the year) dominates immediate reactions from the film, but he is just as integral to the emotional punch that slowly reveals itself during Hank’s journey home, coming to terms with his own troubled psyche. Dano himself is also no stranger to roles that stray from the beaten path, and his Cast Away meets Calvin and Hobbes take on Robinson Crusoe plays dividends. The part overlaps quite a bit with his career-highlight turn in Love & Mercy from last year, and his exploration of similar themes of isolation, psychological and emotional distress continues to be rewarding. Dano and Radcliffe make a superlative pair, navigating a complex and daring script with aplomb.
Upon returning home from the theater, I checked out the trailers that had been released to discover exactly what I expected. Some of the greatest moments of Swiss Army Man, those moments that made me sit up in my seat and exclaim in shocked delight, laughing out loud with a delirious sense of ‘how did they come up with this stuff?’ mirth, are right there in the trailer. These singular moments of the filmgoing experience are lost when presented out of context in a two to three minute clip viewed on a phone on the subway. Swiss Army Man is such a joyfully idiosyncratic little film that could, so assured in its approach, so full of humor (there is quite a bit of farting, after all) and so deft in using that humor as a feint to disguise its trenchant and life-affirming core. Punctuated by a suitably off-kilter score heavy on a capella from Andy Hull and Robert McDowell (and how that score shifts and changes as the film evolves is directly tied into its central themes), Swiss Army Man moves in directions no one could reasonably expect with confidence that belies its creators’ lack of feature film experience.
The cat is likely permanently out of the bag when it comes to voraciously devouring every little morsel about a movie made available prior to its release. And with wages stagnating while the cost of a ticket, some popcorn, a box of candy and a drink continues to rise, it’s tough to fault doing your due diligence prior to lining up to drop quite a bit of money on seeing a film in the theater. Being an informed consumer is a difficult position to deride, but there is a tipping point where it can go too far and affect the very experience you might be trying to decide is worth the time. From time to time, willfully withdrawing from the unending hype machine can be quite rewarding. It’s difficult to think of a better example than a film as wonderfully surprising as Swiss Army Man.