By now, you may have already heard either positive or negative buzz about the notorious film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was quickly dubbed the “Daniel Radcliffe farting corpse” movie. In fact, Swiss Army Man is the debut by Daniels, the collaborative team made up of Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, whose inventive and crazy music videos and short films have already earned them quite a reputation.
For their first full-length feature, they take a very specific image of a man riding a farting corpse across the water like a jet ski and expand it into a full feature that plays with some of the ideas set forth in films like All is Lost and Castaway. In this case, drama is kept to a minimum in favor of absurdist humor.
It opens with images of items floating on the open sea with hand-scrawled S.O.S messages written to whomever might find them. The author of those desperate notes is Hank Thompson (Paul Dano) who is ready to hang himself when he spots a dead body on the beach. Using some built-up gas in the corpse’s stomach, he manages to get off the island only to end up on another beach where the corpse (who is named “Manny”) is Hank’s only companion as he tries to make his way home. It’s one of the stranger premises for a movie and it only gets stranger as Hank learns of Manny’s other talents, but the corpse also starts to gain sentience and ask questions about what he’s being told by Hank.
Swiss Army Man is definitely a comedy, although many of the laughs are more scatological than we normally get from an independent film—for instance, when Hank learns of Manny’s navigating skills using his erection as a compass, that leads to him dressing up like a woman to try to turn him on. As ridiculous as that might sound, there are more philosophical layers to Swiss Army Man than it simply being a juvenile low-brow joke to snicker about. As Manny becomes more aware, he needs to learn more about life and death, love and sex, and Hank does his best to explain these things to his new friend.
This makes the film very much a classic two-hander, where it’s all about the relationship between these two men. Of the two actors, Daniel Radcliffe gives the more impressive performance, if only because it involves a lot of contortions of his face and body to pull off Manny’s corpse-like nature. Paul Dano brings Hank a similar comedic pathos as he has to other characters he’s played, but it’s never anything that gets too far away from some of his previous performances. If you like Radcliffe already, you’ll be amused by this role; if you’re not a fan of Dano, then this isn’t going to do much to change that.
The DIY production design for the film is on par with the work of Michel Gondry, particularly in Be Kind Rewind, and it’s fun to see what Hank is capable of creating using found garbage in order to illustrate the stories he tells Manny to explain things to him. Swiss Army Man also benefits from its equally inventive score, mostly a capella work by two of Atlanta’s Manchester Orchestra, which feeds off of the singing done by Hank and Manny on screen, including a fun twist on the Jurassic Park theme.
What might kill any good will towards the film is the bizarre third act twist that’s certainly open for interpretation, but it’s going to be aggravating for anyone who has remained aboard thus far. Needless to say Swiss Army Man isn’t going to be for everyone—knowing the Daniels’ work and sense of humor beforehand certainly will help—but there are a lot of layers to the storytelling and the strange nature of the relationship between the characters does grow on you as it goes along.
opens in select cities on Friday, June 24 and expands nationwide on July 1.