Swiss Army Man might just go down as one of 2016’s most ambitious, inventive, and surprisingly engrossing films. Powered by a simple yet surreal screen story and memorable performances from both Paul Dano (Love & Mercy) and Daniel Radcliffe (the “Harry Potter” films), it’s a film that never shies from the unorthodox in terms of what you get on screen.
Yet for all the weirdly wondrous action played out in the course of its 95 minutes, at the heart of Swiss Army Man are nothing less than the very basic questions of human existence. It’s thoughtful, heartfelt, and occasionally hilarious entertainment that needs to be seen in order to be truly appreciated.
What’s it about?
Marooned alone on a remote island in the Pacific, Hank Thompson (Dano) is just about ready to end it all by hanging himself when he spots something curious wash up on the beach. The body of a man (Radcliffe), dressed in a grey suit and tie, presents Hank with the sudden hope that at least his solitude might be at an end, at least until Hank realizes that it’s the body of a dead man.
Except the body isn’t quite as dead as it looks. Specifically, the body is very, very flatulent. In fact, the body has so much gas to expend that it can propel itself through the water.
Being a rather inventive fellow, Hank puts the body’s capacity for flatulence to amazing use in getting them both off the island, across the ocean, and back on dry land. As he begins traveling back to civilization, however, Hank discovers that flatulence is just one of his new companion’s abilities.
What else can it do? Well, perhaps most important to the film’s story is that it can talk, and it has a name: Manny.
Manny, as Hank discovers, has no memory of his life before he became a corpse. He knows nothing of what it means to be alive, to live among other people, to feel emotions or even to die, and the more time Manny spends with Hank, the more he wants to know.
And so the very unlikely pair of man and corpse begin very different but parallel journeys — one of them back to the world he never truly fit into (hence the running away that got him stranded on an island in the first place) and the other to a world and an existence he’s never known.
Directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively and professionally known as “Daniels”, were awarded “Best Director or Directing” in a U.S. produced film at 2016’s Sundance Film Festival for Swiss Army Man, and its easy to see why. When the script calls for such things as using a flatulent corpse as a jet ski, a wood chopper, an outdoor showerhead (not what you think) or even as a mechanism to fire a makeshift grappling hook, a great deal of inventiveness is needed, and Daniels brings what’s needed and more.
Is there something disconcerting or off-putting about all that plot mileage off of bodily function? Arguably, yes, but in Swiss Army Man it never feels gratuitous or cheap. The farts and bodily function jokes aren’t just there to be funny in that middle-school, farts-are-always-funny sort of way — they’re there to provide almost MacGyver-type inspiration and problem-solving. To make all that work on screen at all, much less to give it the aura of magic realism that it exudes as the film unfolds, is nothing short of an extraordinary achievement on the part of the directors.
Existential questions, earnest emotion add heft
But for all that weirdness (and there’s no denying it’s weird, for all its artfulness), Swiss Army Man has at its core a story filled with heart, and aims to be truly introspective in its exploration of its characters and the nature of humanity itself. To keep audiences engaged in such such heady stuff while at the same time keeping it relatable, the film demands exemplary work from its leads, and that’s exactly what it gets.
Paul Dano has proven exceptional in the past decade, going back to roles in 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, 2007’s There Will Be Blood, and much more recently 2013’s Prisoners and 2014’s Love & Mercy, when it comes to delivering tangible, relatable fragility in memorable characters. Whether the character happens to be inspired, fanatical, or simply awkward or damaged, the emotional fragility is always palpable and immediately arresting. Here, in Swiss Army Man, he’s at the top of his game, called upon in just about every frame of the film to convey that quality as well as the kind of on-screen charisma necessary for a leading man to carry a film.
Meanwhile, Radcliffe, who of all his one-time “Harry Potter” castmates has been the least shy about tackling unorthodox roles and acting challenges both on the stage and screen, certainly gives his all to playing Manny. In many ways, his is the more challenging role to play in terms of physicality and physical expression. There’s not a great deal of reference material out there for portraying a corpse coming to life in a way that’s not horrifying, so what Radcliffe accomplishes here just in terms of screen presence is memorable in and of itself.
All that said, Swiss Army Man may just be a little too out there for audiences who prefer to spend their time at the movies with films featuring more conventional storylines and structures. It’s also a film that by design doesn’t necessarily demand being seen on the big screen.
But if you look forward to films that fall outside of the norm, that dare to tell unusual stories in visually innovative ways, and you’re fortunate enough to live in a area where the film will be released, then you should see Swiss Army Man at the earliest opportunity.
Swiss Army Man
Starring Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert.
Running Time: 95 minutes
Rated R for language and sexual material.