The first image that we see in Swiss Army Man is of Hank (Paul Dano) wrapping a noose around his neck. He’s about to commit suicide on a deserted island when he sees a body wash up on the beach. Close up, he seems like a normal looking corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) in a spiffy looking suit; but little does Hank know that this corpse is a farting, naïve being who just wants to know what life is all about.
So far, the advertisements have turned people off of the concept and even prompted walkouts at Sundance (though what doesn’t these days?). But this film is easily one of the best of the year, taking viewers on a spiritual journey with humor and heart. Daniels is the composition of both Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Their only experience is in music videos, including the visionary “Turn Down for What.” And while it might be concerning that their background is in catchy Lil Jon songs, Swiss Army Man proves that they’re more than just flashy music video gurus.
When the corpse comes to life, Hank names him Manny and starts to teach him the routine of the living. He illustrates his own version of “Everybody Poops” in a bible and has to have the awkward talk about masturbation (“So, you masturbate when you think of your mom?”). But alongside teaching a corpse how to poop, Hank finds Manny useful in more ways than one. He can pump an unlimited supply of water out of his mouth and use his teeth for cutting wood. Manny can offer everything Hank needs to survive—similar to a Swiss Army knife.
But the film isn’t just about fart and poop jokes; thematically, the film deals with morality and the value of life, contrasting Manny’s ironic love for life and Hank’s disdain for it. Every joke and awkward conversation has a purpose and meaning. They start to unravel Hank as a character, and suddenly we’re studying him as if he’s a lab experiment. Dano gives so much depth to his character, and by the end you don’t know how to feel about him at all.
In case you needed more confirmation that Radcliffe is no longer a wand waving wizard, he proves it through Manny. Radcliffe demonstrates how far he goes out for his roles. He demonstrates a wonderful physical performance by only twitching his eye and barely opening his mouth to speak. Radcliffe is able to convey so much through so little means and is able to make the audience relate to him in every scene.
Daniels use their music video experience to their advantage. In order to help Manny remember who he was, Hank constructs colorful settings made of the debris around them that could help spark his memory. Accompanied is the stellar soundtrack composed by Manchester Orchestra, which makes the film look like it could have been a music video itself. What’s even more interesting is that, at times, the music is diegetic, with both characters humming along with the tune.
However, as much as the surreal tone gives the film its own identity, it lacks a bit in the plot department. The story is essentially Castaway with Manny playing the Wilson part. It does a fine job at examining Hank’s instability, but the ending felt like it was deconstructing that development. It didn’t take away from the rest of the picture, but it felt like too much of a cop-out.
Swiss Army Man is the buddy film that I never knew I wanted. Dano and Radcliffe make this unusual relationship feel so natural, and sometimes you even start to forget that Radcliffe is supposed to be dead. Its absurdism layered in beautiful symbolic imagery is the closest to a proper Kurt Vonnegut adaptation that we will ever get. This film is such a gem and more proof on why studios should be greenlighting more original ideas.