Terrific performances and a whip-smart script propel this fearless dramedy to dizzying heights of sublime stupidity.
If you’ve been waiting to see someone ride a farting corpse across the sea like a demented jet ski, Swiss Army Man is the movie for you. Writer-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert pack enough quirk and angst into their feature debut to make even Zach Braff jealous. Terrific performances and a whip-smart script propel this fearless dramedy to dizzying heights of sublime stupidity and heartfelt charm. In fact, Swiss Army Man might be the most absurdist (and flatulent) coming-of-age film in cinematic history. Behold the birth of another cult classic!
Hank (Paul Dano) is at the end of his rope, both figuratively and literally. Stranded on a remote island with no hope of rescue, he tightens a nylon noose around his neck and prepares to end the unrelenting isolation. He hums the gentle lullaby his mother sang to him as a child; a song so tainted by painful memories that he can’t bear to recite the words aloud. The only thing that can save him now is an act of God.
Hank’s unlikely savior -- a dead body churning in the surf -- proves that the Lord does, indeed, work in mysterious ways. Hank names the nattily attired corpse ‘Manny’ (Daniel Radcliffe), and the two begin a long, flatus-filled journey back to civilization. It turns out that Manny isn’t your typical dead dude. He has special “powers”. Not only can he fart like the wind, his rigor mortis enables him to cut logs, shoot projectiles, and provide a very intimate compass to point them in the right direction. Oh, and he can also talk, sing, and fall in love. Manny’s act makes The Walking Dead look like amateur hour.
What sounds like nothing more than an extended riff on the lame ‘80s comedy Weekend at Bernie’s is actually a boundlessly creative freak-show that packs a surprising emotional wallop. Yes, it’s a movie about a farting corpse, but the magnitude of Hank’s arrested emotional development makes this preoccupation with bodily functions a logical extension of his personality. His infantile view of the world predictably steers every conversation back to the virtues of poop, masturbation, and sex. Reflecting on the omnipresence of Internet porn, for example, Hank laments, “Before the Internet, every girl was a lot more special.” He may be a confused man-child, but that doesn’t make him wrong.
It’s this childlike innocence that elevates Hank from buffoon to tragic figure. His obsession with flatulence and sex is merely a symptom of the affliction that left him emotionally crippled. Every potential relationship is already drowning in romantic idealism before it even percolates to the surface. Flashbacks reveal a lovesick Hank riding the bus every day just to catch a glimpse of the luminous Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead); an unattainable love object that is best left undisturbed. She exists now only as a cellphone image, left to torment Hank with her eternal perfection as he continues to die inside.
Lest you worry that Swiss Army Man is a depressing ride, writer-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively billed as “The Daniels”) rarely stray from their winning fart formula. The farcical elements carry most of the action, including an indescribable montage documenting Manny’s feats of bodily wonder. Matters are taken so far over the top, in fact, that even the film’s conclusion leaves you wondering what was real, what was imagined, and what the hell just happened. The filmmakers judicially sprinkle any downers atop a fine layer of mayhem, obscuring the strings of their story with inspired physical gags and juvenile verbal sparring. The end result is a heartfelt ‘coming-of-age’ tale masquerading as a nonsensical buddy comedy.
This blending of the absurd and the existential might topple into cloying sentimentality were it not for the fearless performances of Dano and Radcliffe. Dano continues to be a fascinating screen presence. His unorthodox delivery and distinctive appearance make him feel menacing and fragile at the same time. Radcliffe is a physical force of nature here, turning his body into a pliable comedic instrument. Though the lines between practical and special effects are thankfully blurry, there’s no question that Radcliffe and Dano took a physical beating. These are the bravely unglamorous performances of two actors completely immersed in their work.
The authenticity of their performances is augmented by the desolate setting and ingenious soundtrack. Though the musical compositions are penned by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, the squeaky vocals are provided by Dano and Radcliffe. This gives each song a spontaneous feel, as the characters create stream-of-consciousness riffs on the madness that surrounds them. These simplistic ‘hiking tunes’ are perfect for the organic darkness of the Old Growth forests showcased in Swiss Army Man. Gigantic trees dwarf these bumbling characters, obscuring them not only from the outside world, but from each other on several anxious occasions. This forest is a great place to visit, but you definitely don’t want to live here.
Visually, Swiss Army Man might contain a few too many flourishes. Manny’s superhuman antics, for instance, don’t always work from a purely visual standpoint, even if they consistently draw laughs. Pacing, too, becomes an issue in the film’s middle section. Even at a lean 95-minutes, there are times when the story threatens to stall. That’s when Dano and Radcliffe really work their magic. Listening to these dimwits exchange existential babble by the campfire is far more entertaining than it deserves to be.
What carries Swiss Army Man to undeniable cult status is its unflagging creativity and infectious weirdness. It simply overwhelms you with its whacked-out energy. And yet, because the filmmakers refuse to skimp on these characters, it also contains a satisfying emotional core. Ultimately, a bizarre concoction like this will have multiple interpretations, depending on the prejudices of the viewer. That’s the appeal of fringe cinema; the exhilaration of watching something unique and difficult to categorize.