Swiss Army Man

Note: With Swiss Army Man in limited release this weekend, we’re re-running our review from the Sundance Film Festival.

About five minutes into Swiss Army Man, you’re faced with a choice. By this point in the film, you’ll have seen Hank (Paul Dano), a man stranded alone on a desert island, try to hang himself. His suicide attempt is interrupted by the arrival of a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) that proves to be a prolific farter. Hank opts not to kill himself, and instead rides “Manny” like a flatulence-powered jet ski in the direction of civilization.

The scene is weird, and absurd, and crude, and dark, but kind of beautiful, too, and it’s at this point you have to make a decision: Either you’re willing to go with a movie that delights in all of those unsavory qualities, or you’re not. If you decide you’re not, know that Swiss Army Man will only get stranger and ruder, and you’re probably better off putting it back on the shelf until you’re in the mood for it. If you decide you are, however, you’ll discover a unique, oddly gorgeous adventure anchored by a superb performance from Radcliffe as a dead body (no, really). 

Swiss Army Man is the feature screenwriting and directing debut of the Daniels — also known as Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the music video directors perhaps best known for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s mesmerizing crotch-dance video “Turn Down for What.” Swiss Army Man feels like it belongs to the same lineage. Like “Turn Down for What,” Swiss Army Man turns toward absurdity to dig into the baser, less polite elements of the human experience (and the male experience in particular) — all the stuff that society tells us to keep hidden and tuck away and never talk about. This means bodily functions, but also emotional insecurities, fears, and fantasies.

Manny, with his super-farting abilities, steers Hank to another deserted beach. Hank, with Manny in tow, heads into the surrounding forest in search of civilization. Hank oscillates between despair and optimism, but Manny proves a godsend — some sort of “multi purpose tool man,” as Hank puts it. When Hank needs water, Manny gurgles up liquid for Hank to drink. When Hank gets lonely, Manny talks to him, after a fashion, and sings to him to calm his thoughts, just as Hank’s mother once did. I’ll leave the rest of Manny’s special talents for you to discover, but suffice it to say most of them are similarly bizarre and/or rude.

Hank becomes increasingly convinced that Manny’s love for a mystery woman, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and first seen as a cell phone photo, is the key to their way home. The problem is, Manny doesn’t remember anything about his life with this woman, or about life at all, really. Hank guides him in the ways of the living, explaining everything from defecation to masturbation to love, and stages elaborate recreations of Manny’s life with this woman. The latter scenes are some of the film’s most beautifully dreamlike, bursting with color and tenderness.

Radcliffe is superb as Manny. It can’t be an easy trick for an actor to make a character feel both alive and dead at the same time, but Radcliffe pulls it off and proves himself to be an excellent physical comedian in the process. He brings out the best in Dano, too. Dano’s performance could seem self-consciously wacky if it weren’t balanced out by Radcliffe’s, but the two play off of each other perfectly. Manny becomes more real (though not really more alive) as Hank slips further into fantasy. Their friendship is totally one-sided, of course, but the emotions feel genuine — think Tom Hanks and Wilson the Volleyball’s in Cast Away, only less socially appropriate.

All of the gross gags and twisted humor are just a way into the film’s true theme of loneliness — and not just the kind experienced by people who are truly, literally alone. Hank is physically separated from society by circumstance, but it becomes increasingly clear that he wasn’t much less isolated in the real world. And that, perhaps, there was a good reason for that. As Hank and Manny get closer to the real world, our perception of Hank begins to shift from the way he sees himself (and by extension, the way Manny sees him) and toward the way the rest of the world sees him, and it complicates our understanding of the character as we knew him before.

But whatever we think of Hank as an individual, his insecurities feel universal. There’s a pervasive sense of sadness in Swiss Army Man about the way that all the societal rules meant to keep our communities running smoothly also keep us from being truly honest with one another, with exposing the ugly parts that bind us as much as our best qualities do. “If my best friend won’t fart in front of me,” Manny says at point, “what else is he keeping from me?”

/Film rating: 7.0 out of 10

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