If you’ve heard anything at all about Swiss Army Man, there’s a chance you’ve already made up your mind about whether or not it’s going to be your thing. Since it’s debut at Sundance earlier this year (and the storied theater walk-outs that accompanied it), Swiss Army Man has been most commonly known by another, admittedly accurately descriptive name: “that Daniel Radcliffe farty boner corpse movie”. And, man, it definitely is that, but it is also maybe one of the best, funniest, and most original movies of the year.
The plot: Stranded on a desert island, Hank (Paul Dano) is on the verge of committing suicide when a body (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore. Deeming the body Manny, Hank discovers the corpse has superhuman abilities; able to dispense potable water from its mouth, fire projectiles like a rifle, create sparks by snapping its fingers, and, yes, propel itself through the water like a jet ski powered by farts. Mostly importantly, Hank finds in Manny a confidant and companion, particularly once Manny starts speaking back to him. As the two make their way back towards society, Hank teaches Manny about the world and the two begin forging an unlikely friendship.
There’s a lot of Swiss Army Man that reads like the dumbest joke I would have told in elementary school. It’s mere minutes into the film when Hank starts riding off his island prison like a flatulent powerboat and maybe only about half an hour before he discovers Manny’s erections (through his clothes, if it makes a difference) can be used as a navigation tool. There’s a lot here that could easily be labeled stupid or juvenile, but never for a moment think that the movie itself is. Director duo Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) find in a concept that even the Happy Madison might deem “a little crude” emotional honesty and poignancy bring it to the forefront. Last week, I wrote about how some of the surface-level similarities between Her and The Lobster were negated by differences in tone and the emotions they explored. Oddly enough, Swiss Army Man bares stronger emotional and tonal similarities to the former. As Hank teaches an innocent, childlike Manny about the wider world, the flush of emotions is intense and resonant. Hank builds a quirky, artificial world of Gilligan’s Island-style contraptions to teach Manny a wide arrange of emotions and experiences from the simple joy of watching a movie, to the jolt of excitement and panic that accompanies seeing a crush on the bus, and that’s more or less what the movie does on the whole. Swiss Army Man uses artifice and pageantry in its set-up to explore concepts like the rituals of modern social interactions and societal pressures to conform in a way that makes them at once a step away from reality and completely universal.
Movies anchored by two performances are on the whole rather impressive. A movie anchored by two performances wherein one of the players is a limp corpse even is even more so. Swiss Army Man is the chemistry between Dano and Radcliffe; their friendship and emotional journey takes precedent over their literal journey. Whether or not Hank gets back to the life he lived before is secondary (how he became stranded is barely sketched out), and the real stakes are in the building of a friendship and the challenges it faces. The acapella score, composed by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of Manchester Orchestra maps perfectly to the emotional development of the leads that begins with a single, frantic hum as Hank faces his death alone on the island, incorporates layered voices and harmonies as Hank and Manny form their bond, and crescendos with a genuinely moving rendition of John Williams’ theme from Jurassic Park as the pair’s friendship reaches its fever pitch. Dano, who acts as friend, parent, and –through a bit of play-acting– love interest to Manny*, gets to work up and down throughout the emotional spectrum and does so well. Daniel Radcliffe, commendably never taking the easy route in his post-Potter career, does the heavy lifting here. Manny’s vocal capabilities grow as the movie progresses, but his lines are delivered with a monotone, oddly sunny voice even as his emotional state changes. It’s a gamble that pays off, and adds up to an immensely endearing performance. In the absence of essential cues like body language, facial expressions, or eye movement, Daniel Radcliffe brings the character to life (or weird undeath, I guess).
And dammit, Swiss Army Man is just really, really funny. We can play “cultured adult with refined tastes” ’til the cows come, but it’s not gonna change the fact that watching the star of the Harry Potter franchise take off like a gastronomically-distressed rocket across the ocean while Paul Dano rides atop him –his face registering equal parts deep relief and confusion– is truly and deeply hilarious. For every beat of emotional honesty, there’s percussive, wonderful physical comedy in seeing Radcliffe’s arm come down like an action figure’s and breaking a log in half or in watching rocks become dangerous projectiles when shot out of Manny’s mouth. Daniels have a knack for physicality that can make a scene visceral, hilarious, and often both.
Swiss Army Man is the kind of movie that makes me excited to watch more movies. I’m happy someone thought up this concept, I’m happy it got filmed, and happy it found funding and a general release, and hell, I’m happy that people were so incensed that they walked out of Sundance screenings. Swiss Army Man feels deeply strange, and as the movie argues, sometimes you just have to own that strangeness. I know there are some people who will make it to the end of this review unswayed and unwilling to get past the central conceit of the movie, and that’s really okay. Art should be weird and offputting to some as it is revelatory to others. I can’t say that I mean this literally, but metaphorically speaking, the world needs more farty boner corpse movies in it.
*I swear up and down there’s not necrophilia here, relax.