Life’s a gas
Director: Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Starring: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe
Swiss Army Man, like the dead corpse at its center, is a multipurpose entity. It can be a lot of different things to the viewer.
It can be a story about the wild things starvation and desperation can do to the brain, and the strange movies that play in your head when you are losing it. It can be a story about how a deranged stalker deals with the end of his life and afterlife. It can be a story about how funny it would be if somebody’s farts could propel him like a jet ski across the ocean and how funny it would be if his erect dick were a compass.
I’ve made my choice what this movie is about, but you could walk away from it thinking something completely different. That’s the beauty of a movie like Swiss Army Man.
As Hank, Paul Dano gets yet another career-defining, nutty role. He’s seemingly stranded on a desert island, at the end of his rope, literally. Just before killing himself, a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on the beach, and starts farting. It starts farting—a lot.
Before much time has passed, Hank is riding the corpse, dubbed Manny, across the ocean as its farts provide jet propulsion. Hank, with the arrival of his new friend, decides suicide is a drag, and takes Manny along with him on a trek through the forest to find civilization. Manny eventually starts having conversations with Hank, and they are both aided in the forest by Manny’s hard-on, which acts as a compass. Oh, did I already say that? Manny’s dick is a compass.
Sound weird? It is. It most assuredly is. It’s also strangely beautiful, deeper and richer than most movies with this many farts in it, and, depending upon the way you take the movie, super disturbing and sad.
It also gets some high points for special effects. Hank discovers multiple uses for Manny, including water dispenser, rocket launcher, and more. All of these moments are delivered convincingly by directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who also wrote the script and get credit for one of cinema’s most bizarre directing debuts. This one is up there when it comes to wonderfully strange directorial first timers, right alongside David Lynch and his Eraserhead.
It’s also a keen observation on our current digital age, with advances in phone and camera technology making it easier for people with problems to do stupid things in High Definition. On top of the stunning camerawork, Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of Manchester Orchestra provide one of the year’s best, most triumphant musical scores.
Dano, who shined so brightly in last year’s Love & Mercy, continues to make the kind of daring role choices Nicolas Cage used to make. (Let’s hope he doesn’t end up in any remakes of The Wicker Man or Ghost Rider sequels.) He makes Hank very likeable, or despicable, again, based on the way you take this movie in. If you make a list of some of the more daring, eccentric films of the last 10 years (There Will Be Blood, Ruby Sparks, Looper, Where the Wild Things Are), you will often find Dano involved.
As for Radcliffe, this qualifies as a completely insane triumph. Other actors—most notably Terry Kiser in Weekend at Bernie’s—have played corpses being dragged around or present for a long stretch in a movie. Radcliffe brings a dimension to corpse acting that has, quite honestly, never been seen before.
It’s a marvel of physical acting that unconventionally marks the actor finally transcending his Harry Potter reputation and doing something beyond notable. What he does here deserves some sort of special Oscar—the Oscar for Playing Dead While Sort of Being Alive at Times and Delivering Massive Amounts of Body Humor in a Way That is Somehow Moving in Addition to Being Kind of Gross yet Awesome.
Yeah, they probably won’t create that category, but let’s just hand over that award in this here movie review. Daniel, you deserve it.
Swiss Army Man is destined for cult classic status. It’s also destined to hold some sort of record for corpse farting and corpse erections in a movie. While such things are mighty prominent, don’t let them distract you from the powerful story at the center. It’s a true mindbender.