A lone man prepares to hang himself, stranded on a small island for who knows how long. He tightens his noose, sings a song from his childhood, and prepares to end his life…
Until he sees a body wash up on shore. He checks for life, but it’s a dead man. But wait- it’s farting! Its farts are so fierce, its flatulence so forceful that the stranded man straddles the body and rides it across the ocean to freedom. Yes, propelled by the body’s gas expulsion.
Such is the opening to Swiss Army Man, the strikingly original debut film from the directors of the Turn Down For What music video (what a body of work). It is the story of Hank and Manny (Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe); the bromance between a living but lost man and a dead but thrifty body, a love story with equal shares of farts and heart.
There’s a part of me that wants to leave it at that. Armed with that knowledge and the fact that it’s great, you should already be on your way to the theater to see the madness with your own two eyes. There has never been a movie like Swiss Army Man, and I doubt that many filmmakers will ever have the courage to replicate it.
It’s a bizarre, endearing, one of a kind film that demands to be experienced through sheer force of will. I’ll tell you more, but I won’t get too specific, as much of the movie’s charm comes from not knowing what to expect from its idiosyncratic storytelling.
Paul Dano plays a man trying to find his way back to society and Daniel Radcliffe plays a talking corpse that has forgotten what it’s like to be human. After rocketing across the ocean on his farting body, Hank soon discovers that Manny has other special talents: slam his chest and clean water pours from his mouth, for example. When Hank teaches Manny about love and the corpse’s erection points them in the direction of safety, he decides to keep educating Manny in hopes that the multi-purpose tool of a dead man will guide him home.
What he doesn’t expect is a burgeoning relationship.
At its core, Swiss Army Man is an oddball comedy about overcoming loneliness through friendship. Amidst all the crass body humor and all-out insanity, the movie uplifts an astonishingly strong theme of the benefits of growing closer to another person. The entire film is grossly hilarious, and the literal openness Manny has concerning the uncomfortable aspects of human life thematically strengthens the heartwarming openness that can exist between two people (be it a man and his corpse, or a man and his lost love).
Swiss Army Man loses sight of this tight vision during the third act. As the movie comes to a close, Hank and Manny begin to spout the movie’s life lessons blatantly, to the point where their dialogue is almost a running commentary on the deeper subtext. With the ending itself, the directors seem to pull back the curtain and say “this was never more than a weird joke!” which somewhat undoes the goodwill they had established with the movie’s emotional side.
Before that point though, Swiss Army Man is a unique revelation in using lowbrow comedy to shape higher art. Every idea — especially the delightful decision to use the main characters’ a cappella singing for the soundtrack — feels fresh, which is rare for the film medium this year.
And Daniel Radcliffe knocks it out the park: the former Harry Potter actor has never been funnier or more comfortable than he is as a lovable dead body.
★★★★ (4 out of 5)