I thought things couldn’t get much uglier after Obama was elected (both times), but boy was I wrong. This election cycle (which is a nice way to describe a SOLID YEAR OF CRAP) has left me wanting to have nothing more to do with humanity. Ever. (Not that I had far to go. I’d generally given up on the human race years ago.)
But I didn’t have this consciously in my mind when I picked three thematically identical movies to watch in quick succession.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
This is another from New Zealand’s answer to Christopher Guest (sort of), Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows). Because of that horror tour de force, I had pretty high hopes for Hunt. While it wasn’t nearly as uproariously funny, it still had plenty of the super dry kiwi humor that I’ve been falling in love with.
Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a kid stranded in the foster care system, deposited in a last-ditch effort with Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Sam Neill) on their remote farm in the middle of the Bush.
He’s a snot-nosed, “big city” punk who we figure won’t last a week in such wild surroundings, but he settles in quickly thanks to Bella’s loving determination (Hec’s, not so much).
Disaster strikes, however, and Hec and Ricky end up as fugitives in the Bush thanks to people mistaking Hec’s intentions with Ricky for something much more sinister (Rachel House is especially fabulous as a civil servant with a relentless Javert-like obsession with Ricky). Cue lots of heartwarming bonding between this unlikely pair (they’re a bit like the team in Pixar’s Up, if the old man could kill a wild boar and navigate the forest with a river), and a journey that succeeds in feeling quite epic in this tiny little movie.
Sam Neill of course is great, and his clear distaste for children can be felt echoing all the way back to Jurassic Park. But real props have to go to Dennison, who won me over surprisingly quickly (because I also have a clear distaste for children), and by the end it’s hard to believe he’s the same surly kid from the beginning.
It won’t break any records, but is a sweet, funny film (I mentioned Christopher Guest. There’s also just a touch of Wes Anderson, one of my favorites, which might also explain my enjoyment).
Ben (Viggo Mortensen) is raising his six kids as best he knows how–isolated from the real world in the woods, where they study philosophy and politics (like Marxism and Maoism), speak several languages including Esperanto, and start each day with a grueling exercise regimen that would be at home in any boot camp. In other words, as complete freaks to “normal” society.
But disaster strikes and mom dies, forcing a field trip into the real world for her funeral, as well as to see her parents, who strongly disapprove of their libertarian lifestyle. It’s this journey, and the inevitable conflict with the outside world, that puts their family bond to the true test.
I enjoyed the culture clash (upon seeing other people for the first time, the kids ask “Are they all sick? Everyone’s fat”), not so much the harsh light it casts on our education system (the 6-year-old can interpret the Bill of Rights and expound on the consequences of Citizens United, while their in-law counterparts know only “ummm, it’s a government thing?”). And as a lifelong bookworm and loner, I think fitting in with society is highly overrated.
But by the end, a satisfying compromise is reached with both worlds, which is really more than I expected after seeing the incredible pressure to conform that’s put on the family.
So, another hit. Can we get a trifecta?
Swiss Army Man
Turns out yes, we can. And I’ve saved the best for last.
This was made by the Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Scheinert), evidently famous for their video for “Turn Down For What,” which you’d have to be living on your own desert island to have never heard.
I watched this movie once, and had a scrunched-up look of revulsion on my face nearly the entire time. When it was over, I felt like I really, really wanted to love it but I just couldn’t.
It’s a film about life and death, and love and friendship, and farts. Lots and lots of farts.
And that’s what my problem was. The farts were disgusting, and a major plot device, and obscured the rest of the story for me.
And that was a huge mistake.
I found the next day I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so watched some interviews with the filmmakers. What I didn’t see was, the farts are deeply symbolic and not just thrown in as a cheap laugh.
So with this in mind, I watched it a second time. And my feelings took a hard 180 and I absolutely loved it. Not since giving Fight Club a second chance have I experienced such a radical change of heart with a movie.
It’s still a hard sell. Hank (Paul Dano, who I’ve had my eye on since his brilliant, nearly mute role in Little Miss Sunshine) is about to hang himself on a desert island when he suddenly spots Manny’s (Daniel Radcliffe’s) waterlogged, flatulent corpse on the shore (most of the farts I mentioned come from him–which at first I was fine with. I realize corpses sometimes release gas. But it quickly crosses into the realm of the absurd).
Long story short, Hank befriends Manny’s corpse (who does start talking, it’s not just another Tom Hanks/Wilson relationship) and uses his body in sometimes truly repulsive (and not always realistic) ways to survive in the wilderness (hence the title). But Manny is a blank slate who remembers nothing of his life, or of life in general, which leads to some of the most honest, real conversations I’ve ever seen anywhere as Hank educates him–the kind of no-bullshit conversations I’d rather have with people.
As they work their way back to civilization, their friendship deepens. But Manny, being so naive, has trouble grasping some common social tenets, like why it’s unacceptable to fart in front of people. And he’s right; it’s a perfectly natural function, we all do it, so why the taboo?
And thus, the Symbolism of Farts: They represent not holding things inside, trusting another person enough to do it in front of them, trusting someone else to be completely real with them. Not just gratuitous toilet humor. So if you’re considering seeing the movie (and also don’t get much from crass body humor), go into it with this information and you’ll enjoy it so much more.
I don’t want to spoil. The ending could be confusing (but I feel like I have a solid grasp on it and I approve). At the risk of spoiling (but come on, no one really believes corpses can start talking, right?) it’s the very first “it was all a dream” ending that I didn’t loathe. I would love to write a whole dissertation, but most of it is covered nicely in this video, if you want to come back:
But now that we’ve forgiven the flatulence, there are so many moments of such unexpected transcendent beauty and profound sadness that rip my heart right out of my chest (not least of which when they return to society and you realize their friendship is doomed because Manny is still a rotting corpse, and normal people REALLY wouldn’t understand). If you see past the farts, it has so much to say about human connections and loneliness and the life we all take for granted–which has been done, but not like this. This movie is nothing if not hugely original.
(I almost forgot the score, which is nearly all a Capella by Andy Hull and Robert McDonnell of Manchester Orchestra, a little-known band I’ve loved for awhile (I’m a terrible name-dropper), and I loved the music even while hating the movie.)
Once falling for it, I’ve become intensely protective of it. Because it’s very easily dismissed by idiots who don’t want to look deeper and can’t stop snickering at Harry Potter’s butt in the YouTube comments (which put me in a very, very bad mood for a day; I hate when someone puts something beautiful into the world and small, mean people want to tear it down). This danger is magnified by some blurring of gender lines and very mild homoerotic undertones, which I’m down with but I suspect most people who love fart jokes probably aren’t.
I’ve seen a bunch of movies that I want to buy on Blu-ray, but this instantly rocketed to the head of the queue like a grappling hook shooting out of Manny’s throat. My new favorite without question. Believe me, I’m as surprised as you are.