Starring: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Bodily Gases
Director: Daniels (Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert)
Running Time: 99 mins
Synopsis: Lonely and without hope after being stranded on a deserted island Hank (Dano) is about to end it all when he notices a corpse (Radcliffe) on the beach. Dead and flatulent, Hank uses this corpse to make it back to the mainland. Lost in the wilderness, he finds this dead body can talk and what follows is nothing short of mental.
If I describe the opening moments of this wholly unique and wonderful film to you, I think you’ll soon be able to tell if this is for you or not. We pan in on a small deserted island in the middle of the ocean as Hank is about to hang himself and end his misery. Then in the haze of his teary eyed goodbyes he spies a corpse washed up on the beach. Running over to see if he may still be alive Hank finds this dead man is eliciting a ridiculous amount of fart gas. An idea flashes before him and soon enough he’s riding Radcliffe’s corpse across the sea like a jet-ski, as the eccentrically delightful score by Andy Hull & Robert McDowell plays over the credits. It’s hard to know what to do; laugh with it, at it or just give up (hence the numerous walkouts at the Sundance premiere early this year) If you’re still with me at this point then you may find something to like in this mad, funny and powerfully human story.
As the twosome hit land and find themselves lost in the wilderness it becomes apparent Dano’s Hank is a troubled young man. Slowly and surely we get hints into a past filled with abuse, loneliness and pain. Paul Dano is a natural at conveying desperate vulnerability and he manages to do so here without getting punched in the face (an act which had started to become prevalent in all of his films), albeit he does get put through the wringer somewhat. The reasons behind his situation at the beginning are unravelled with tenderness and subtlety, resulting in some truly powerful final moments.
The corpse that Hank utilises for salvation turns out to have ALOT of valuable skills. Slowly waking up once more, and with an almost childlike evolution. Radcliffe’s Manny, as he becomes to be known, reaches key facets of growing up. First words, learning the meaning of said vocab, puberty and the complexity of love. He is used as a means of conveying pertinent insights into the nature of humanity, with all its pain, euphoria and hope. Being dead and all requires Radcliffe to deliver a performance of immense physicality and he excels tremendously. Since the end of Potter he has dedicated himself to seeking out unique, and challenging roles with utter commitment. Swiss Army Man represents the pinnacle of this journey, his facial contortions alone should garner him all the awards (although I feel this is far far too niche to relate to award bodies) and his is the beating heart of which the film rests. Not to mention the incessant farting and giant erections; yes Manny’s blooming sexuality results in a constant boner that for some reason points to their way home.
The bodily gags are frequent and hilarious but are used for more than just an easy laugh. They are utilised as a means of understanding deeper psychological truths. Talk of masturbation leads to revelations about childhood trauma and the constant erections actually provide a nice critique on the male psyche. I mean they are primarily used for comedic purposes but if you look hard enough there is method behind the farting.
As their adventure deepens and their bond grows Hank is faced with some nasty home truths, and we are confused as to whether Manny is real, part of Hank’s fragile psyche, or something else entirely. The movie plays with this regularly but never resting on one reason until the near end, and sadly this is where directors Daniels (yes the weirdness extends to the directing duo combining their first names) lose their control a tad. A film like this is always going to have a tough time creating an ending that satisfies all parties, each member of the audience most likely has their own thought as to what Manny may be. When things hit a dramatic peak as the duo reach their destination the oddness reaches a confusing peak, and the revelation of what is really happening is messy and nowhere near as brave as the previous 90mins. It’s not enough to disrupt the film but it does leave the ending landing with a thump rather the euphoric rapture I expected.
And yet it’s hard to stay mad at a film that offers scenes of such joyous unbridled wonder. There are a number of montage sequences that fill the soul with warmth and humour. An ode to anyone who has felt different, lost or alone. It even manages to be a tribute to the nature of filmmaking, as Hank finds himself changing and manipulating his life story in order to appease Manny he becomes the scriptwriter of his own movie, not to mention a hilarious Jurassic Park shoutout. Swiss Army Man is a feat of uncompromising vision and marks the Daniels out as a duo to watch.
Verdict: Inventive, soaring and painfully human. It doesn’t quite stick the landing but with terrific performances from the central duo and images that’ll stir your soul you owe yourself to embrace this slice of madness.