Possibly referred to as the Daniel-Radcliffe-farting-corpse-movie, Swiss Army Man comes from the screening writing and directorial hands of the Daniels Kwan and Scheiner, and is the duo’s first feature length film. Swiss Army Man concerns Hank (Paul Dano), a young man inexplicably marooned on a deserted island somewhere in the pacific. Hank’s predicament is so dire that he’s on the verge of taking his own life. What saves him is a lifeless corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) that washes up on the shore. Thanks to the vast amount of trapped gas within the bloated body, Hank is able to manipulate the corpse into a jet ski and escape to another, less remote land. Soon the corpse (who Hank names Manny) comes back to life. Though he cannot move around by himself, he is able to talk and do incredible things with his body. With no memory of his life before his death, Manny relies on Hank to inform him on, and to also beautifully act out, social norms and day to day etiquette as they work together to return back to civilization, and reacquaint with Hank’s lost (or perhaps unrequited) love.
Despite the film’s quite grotesque use of bodily functions as a narrative tool (flatulence is not where it ends, Manny spews up water for Hank to drink, and uses his erect penis as a compass) Swiss Army Man is perhaps one of the sweetest films of 2016 so far. This is partly thanks to a stunning turn by Dano, whose Hank is alienated, yet deeply vulnerable. Dano played this version of alienation and longing in Ruby Sparks (2012) as a young author who writes his own girlfriend into existence, and also in Love and Mercy (2014), were the seeds of the young Beach Boys songwriter Brian Wilson’s deep depression were sown (Wilson’s post-breakdown was portrayed by John Cusack). Credit must also be given to Radcliffe, whose lifeless Manny actually possesses a kind of childlike wonder in which every new experience is something to be celebrated, though of course due to his circumstances as a dead guy means that disillusionment and tragedy is easily struck. There are points in the film where one is unsure if Manny is some figment of Hank’s imagination; something his brain has conjured up to quench his crushing loneliness. Certainly Manny’s condition as a talking corpse offers this viewpoint, but actually something more supernatural is eluded to.
There is also a wonderful combination of vibrant visuals and a choral soundtrack that is at once jubilant, fey, and ethereal, which is provided by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of the band Manchester Orchestra. This creates some exhilarating moments. For example, the image of Paul Dano riding a top of Daniel Radcliffe across the ocean like a jet ski whilst the build of Hull and Mcdowell’s ‘Intro Song’ climaxes offers a life-affirming collision of stomps and cheers. Often the seeds of the soundtrack begin in Hank and Manny’s heads, tunes hummed and lyrics reworked from childhood songs. For example, Hank’s comforting recollection of a song his mother sang to him replaces the original lyrics with “Crazy/ I’m fucking crazy/I thought I was rescued/ But you’re just a dead dude/ And I’m gonna die”. Eventually these seeds transfer to the soundtrack in turn creating an impressive and immersive experience.
Swiss Army Man is certainly a strange concoction and could be read in many ways. A surreal comedy, a meditation on loneliness, a boys own adventure, a body horror (for those who flinch at flatulence and disjointed body parts), a bromance, a comedy of errors. It mixes elements of many different films, yet doesn’t fully come up with its own true formula. There are shades of Weekend at Bernie’s (1989) for sure, Cast Away (2000) maybe, and at a push, kids fart comedy Tunderpants (2002), but perhaps the film Swiss Army Man most resembles is Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2005). This particular film features an incredibly sweet and in places very awkward meditation on male companionship, friendship, and the eluding to something more romantic that also comes to light in Swiss Army Man. Both films by coincidence take place in an isolated landscape far from civilization and prying eyes. On its own mad terms Swiss Army Man is a triumph. It doesn’t quite reach the emotional peaks one might expect, or indeed desire, but there is a tenderness that eventually overcomes; and thankfully the film as a whole is not overshadowed by the continuous tooting corpse.
Stephen Lee Naish 2/8/2016