Since its initial buzz at Sundance, Swiss Army Man has become known as the ‘Daniel Radcliffe farting corpse movie’. Which isn’t really fair. It’s a beautiful, inventive, often hilarious film, the arrival of a strong new cinematic voice, a possibly-defining role from a former child star, and a meditation on life and death. It’s also very much a movie about Daniel Radcliffe playing a farting corpse.
Paul Dano plays Hank, a young man seemingly stranded on a desert island, ready to take his own life to end the loneliness, when a corpse washes up on the shore. Hank quickly forms a bond with it similar to that of Tom Hanks and Wilson in Cast Away. But then the corpse reveals he can talk (saying his name is Manny), and is capable of superpowered farts, chopping through wilderness and shooting birds out of the sky. He can’t physically move his limbs or anything, but Hank thinks he might be his tool to get back to civilisation.
This is magical realism at its finest. There’s no ‘secret origin’ to Manny’s powers or undead state. Quite quickly we realise Hank is profoundly depressed and lonely, and Manny is giving him the support he needs. Hank finds Manny’s phone with a picture of his girlfriend in it, and begins to explain life and love to the amnesiac Manny. It’s a film about a troubled young man trying to process the world. Until it’s not. Anyone fearing that Swiss Army Man is ultimately another mopey-white-guy-gets-over-his-first-world-problems movie, be assured, there are much bleaker events to come.
Radcliffe is fantastic. Even if he wasn’t already famous for being a child wizard this would be a star making turn. It’s such an odd performance, not really being able to pull facial expressions and mostly communicating through flopping about on the floor. It’s both hilariously over the top slapstick, and also very subtle, doing a lot with just his eyes. The closest comparison would be the DiCaprio on quaaludes scene in The Wolf Of Wall Street, stretched out to 90 minutes. And while Radcliffe will get the attention, it’s important to point out Paul Dano is great as well. He’s the actual heart of the film, and he totally anchors it (even if whiney awkward dudes are kind of his stock in trade by this point).
The film is the feature debut of music video duo The Daniels, and it really has the feel of an early Spike Jonze movie. It’s incredibly beautiful, with a rich colour palate and inventive visuals (Hank builds elaborate trash sculptures that look like something out of a Michel Gondry video). But for all their pop promo style, they still know how to make a movie. They hit all the comedic and emotional moments perfectly, and it never feels like an extended short or anything. Occasionally the twee indie vocal score and slow moving shots feel a bit like an Arcade Fire video, but there are worse cinematic crimes to commit.
Swiss Army Man might be a hard sell, but the film itself is a triumph. It’s very much a first feature, at the same time both a small two-hander while also trying to deal with really big ideas and concepts. It might not hold up to repeated viewing once the quirk wears off, but it’s so fresh, so inventive and so enjoyable that it’s pretty much guaranteed to be a cult word of mouth hit.
Swiss Army Man is in UK cinemas from September 30th.
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