Don’t let the buzz scare you away. The “farting corpse movie” has a joyous, magical heart.
“When I was hanging up there I didn’t see much of anything. But I did see you.”
It’s no secret that I love odd little films. While David writes up Finding Dory and other summer blockbusters, I’m the guy who covered The Lobster. So when the opportunity to cover the “Daniel Radcliffe farting corpse movie” came around, you can bet that I jumped at the opportunity.
In a world where people complain that we’re drowning in sequels, remakes, and an endless barrage of superhero movies, Swiss Army Man is something completely different. It’s so different, in fact, that it will undoubtedly be a bridge too far for some viewers.
Paul Dano plays Hank, a depressed and despondent shipwreck survivor whose loneliness has driven him to suicide. As he prepares to hang himself he takes a last look at the barren beach that has become his home and sees a man washed up among the waves. It’s not the alive companion he’s been dreaming of, but rather a very gassy corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) that Hank names “Manny.” Hank harnesses Manny’s flatulence and rides him like a jet ski until they crash, and they both wash up on yet another deserted beach.
Slowly, Manny begins to exhibit signs of speech and thought, evolving from mumbled words to complex thoughts that fulfill Hank’s need for companionship. It’s like Cast Away’s Tom Hanks and Wilson taken to the extreme, and the two form an (extremely) unnatural friendship as they traverse the woodlands surrounding the beach together, searching for a way home. This is the first feature film from writer/directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, billed collectively as DANIELS, and the world they’ve created is endearingly weird, funny, and fantastical.
Manny has no memory of social constructs or biology, so it’s up to Hank to explain life to him as they search for a way home. Hank carries Manny’s lifeless body the entire way, and they spend the hours discussing uncomfortable topics like life, love, loneliness, and the populated world that Hank is so desperate to return to. In return, Manny’s decomposing body has a number of uses including being a water pump, an air-powered rifle, and a karate-chopping ax. He’s Hank’s “multi-purpose tool guy,” or, well, you know. Most helpfully, Manny’s erections seem to point the way forward.
A favorite saying of mine is that all movies require some suspension of disbelief — some just require a lot more than others. If you’re unprepared to give yourself over to Swiss Army Man’s oddities, there’s no chance that you’ll enjoy the film. It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, and the closest comparison I can find is the aforementioned Cast Away pairing mixed with the fantasy sequences from a Michel Gondry film.
That fantasy element pervades the film and provides its ample heart. When Hank is unable to provide meaningful examples of the big ideas he’s explaining, he builds sets out of timber and trash so that Manny can experience movie nights, candlelight dinners, and desperate longing for himself. Over the course of their adventures the two men at, at times, buddies, survival companions, ersatz lovers, and more. “When you putt that cork in my butt. Was that like sex?” Manny asks at one point. Much of the film’s humor comes from Manny’s confusion over social mores and Hank’s resulting horror. “You can’t just say everything that comes into your head,” an exasperated Hank tells him, with every few lines punctuated with another round of hilarious, if juvenile, corpse farting.
Their adventures are punctuated by bouts of wistful acapella music, often started diegetically by the characters themselves before being joined by the rest of the soundtrack, performed by Manchester Orchestra members Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, which further adds to the film’s dream-like effect.
Paul Dano is the go-to actor for an earnest indie film outsider, (Little Miss Sunshine, Love & Mercy) and that earnestness is a big part of what allows Swiss Army Man to work. The audience can buy into Hank and Manny’s adventures because Hank is a fully willing participant, discussing uncomfortable adult topics and acting out ridiculous scenarios of garbage-chic crossdressing without a hint of disinterest or cynicism.
Radcliffe is even better as Manny. You might wonder why Radcliffe has any interest in being in such an odd film, but when you’re an actor with an estimated net worth north of $100 million, the simple answer is that you do what you want (and from all reports, playing a farting corpse is exactly what Radcliffe wanted to do). He gives a great physical performance, often spending extended stretches with his body posed at odd angles. His body is the blank canvas on which Hank projects his fantasies, and his consciousness is the sounding board on which the film reveals the human condition. Yes, clichéd as it sounds, Swiss Army Man is dead corpse film about what it means to be human.
Some critics are a little less enthused about the film’s third act when the sum of Hank and Manny’s adventures come back to haunt Hank in unexpected ways, including an encounter with the woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) whose picture has been the lock screen on his slowly dying cell phone for the extent of their adventure, but I was never bothered. Swiss Army Man certainly isn’t a perfect film, but it has some astonishingly dizzying heights that made my heart swell and my sides hurt from laughing.
I don’t want to mince words here. I LOVED this film. It’s the greatest pure enjoyment I’ve gotten out of a movie in a long time. Even starring a cadaver, Swiss Army Man is so full of life and magic that it is a remarkably joyous experience. It never dulls itself down with the search for an explanation for Manny’s reanimation, and it’s so much the wiser for it. Much like Stranger Than Fiction, the film just asks you to play along with the mystical. Is it pure magic? Is Hank slowly slipping into madness? Is this all an “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge?” It simply doesn’t matter.
The truth is that Swiss Army Man is probably a completely unique experience for every viewer. In the end, it might be a film that I loved a lot more than its aesthetics deserve, but who cares? Sometimes a films works its magic on you and hits a special place in your heart. That’s the purity of filmmaking, and I love that Swiss Army Man gave me an avenue to indulge it.