Every once in a while a film comes out of a festival with a certain kind of buzz. Not the buzz that brings prestige and the talk that it will come up at awards season, but the kind of buzz where people are talking about how bizarre, unique, and audacious a film is and is something that needs to be seen to be believed. This year, coming out of the Sundance Film Festival, that film was Swiss Army Man.
Hank (Paul Dano) is a man who is stranded on a small island and at his wits end. He is about the hang himself outside of a cave near the beach when he notices a body that has washed up on the shore. The corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) is bloated and full of gas, which Hank discovers allows it to act like a little motorized sea vessel, and thus Hank escapes the tiny island riding the corpse back to the mainland, though in a secluded forest. Taking the corpse with him as a traveling partner, Hank forms a friendship with the corpse, naming him Manny. Manny surprisingly starts to talk to Hank, and though initially freaked out by it, Hank soon learns that Manny has other unique abilities, like unlimited farts, the ability to act like a water fountain for Hank, and an erection that acts like a compass (yes, you read that right). Hank and Manny’s friendship grows and Hank begins to help Manny try to remember what being alive was like as they wander through the forest.
The film is written and directed by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, a duo that credits themselves as “Daniels.” What they have made is a film that feels like Cast Away combined with elements of a Charlie Kaufman script directed by Michel Gondry. It’s got a visual energy to it that most films don’t have. It has imagination and a weird creativity. When Manny starts talking, he has no memory of his previous life, or of what things are, so much of the story is about Hank explaining words and concepts to Manny and the inevitable conflicts that arise when one word or concept seems to contradict another.
Another driving force of the story is Hank’s cellphone, which he keeps in a plastic bag to keep it dry, and only has 10% battery left. The screen picture features a woman named Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) sitting on a bus. It’s unclear what Hank’s relationship is to Sarah, though he leads Manny to believe that Manny knew her and was in love with her, which spurs Manny on to want to become human and animated once again rather than remain a corpse, thus helping Hank get back to civilization. Because Manny has forgotten his life before he died, Hank uses Sarah and other life moments and some movies (Jurassic Park in particular) to re-enact bus rides, café lunches, parties, and movie nights.
Much of the film is a two-person job, and Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe are both incredible. Dano is an actor I run hot and cold on, less impressed with him than most people generally are. Here though, he is terrific, giving Hank an awkward brokenness and shy nature that shows an impressive level of acting on Dano’s part. Radcliffe, though likely the “supporting” role of the two, is a real joy to watch act as a dead corpse trying to understand things like love and social interaction. He gets the juicier of the two roles for sure, in some ways acting like a 2-year old that won’t stop asking, “Why?” It’s funny to remember that this farting corpse on screen was also the young boy who portrayed Harry Potter for the first time so many years ago. He’s turned into a legitimately good actor.
The film commits 100% to its premise, and is willing to alienate viewers at multiple points of the story to stay true to what it is doing. It’s possible that an equal number of people will be put off by the initial grossness of drinking water from the mouth of a corpse being used as a water jug or the many, many occurrences of flatulence as those who will be uncomfortable with the very dark turn it takes at the end of the film that it ventures into some disturbing territory that makes you question what you’ve been enjoying for most of the film’s runtime. When it gets to its darkest moment, the film ultimately winks at the audience and steps back from what could be an utterly bleak ending and provides an fittingly absurd conclusion that, if you have bought into the movie up to that point, is the icing on a truly bizarre cake.
Everyone involved in Swiss Army Man has helped create a wholly unique film experience. What could easily be a bad fart joke spread out over 90 minutes is instead a complex, human tale that is engaging and entertaining. The film fully commits to its twisted magic and logic and dares the audience to come along on the journey with it. I found it to be a worthwhile experience; an unconventional film that is far from the mainstream but oddly enjoyable and warm.
Rating: 4 out of 5