Reviewed by Selma Thompson
Yes, Daniel Radcliffe really plays a farting corpse in Swiss Army Man, the first feature written and directed by the Daniels–a.k.a. Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan –those bad-boys who broke the internet with their equally zany music video for DJ Snake & Lil Jon’s Turn Down For What. And yes, a farting corpse is as juvenile a running gag as you’d expect. And yes, many people walked out at the movie’s Sundance premiere. These facts must be acknowledged, along with one other: If you value truly independent film-making that celebrates pure cinema, takes risks, and pushes boundaries, you may still need to buy a ticket to Swiss Army Man.
The thinnest of plots provides opportunities for Swiss Army Man’s innovative sound design, breath-taking cinematography, haunting score, and mesmerizing performances. The film opens with a startling image of junk food containers floating ashore, plastic detritus with desperate messages scrawled in sharpie. These messages on a bottle float by too fast for a viewer to read the entire painful biography they suggest, but one line stands out, “I don’t want to die alone.”
Cut to Hank (Paul Dano) on the beach, about to hang himself. His wild hair, bushy beard and sad eyes suggest he’s been lost a long time. Hank expects his life to flash before his eyes, but instead, he spots another man in the distance, pounded by the surf. The possibility of human connection sends Hank running to the body and, though Hank cannot revive him, he names his companion Manny (Daniel Radcliffe). Is it significant that a would-be suicide who looks like a homeless man is “saved” by a corpse in a suit (possibly a “successful” suicide)? Feel free to speculate, viewer. Or not. The ride that follows is what matters. Imagine the film that might have resulted if the crew of Cast Away dropped molly on set, and decided to swap out Wilson the volleyball for a rotting corpse as Tom Hanks’s confidante.
Manny the corpse provides more useful tools than a Swiss army knife, as Hank discovers Manny’s decaying body is swollen with enough gas to ride him like a jet ski; that he can spew relatively fresh water to slack Hank’s thirst; that the dead man’s erection may even function as a compass.
Soon Hank is sharing some of his pain with Manny…and Manny seems to be…talking back. The dead man remembers nothing of how life works, so Hank tutors him, convinced their mutual survival hinges on Manny remembering whether he ever loved someone, in the hope that memory could point his erection-compass to her, and thus to civilization.
In search of home, Hank drags Manny through California’s redwood forests. The directors, and cinematographer Larkin Seiple, alternately thrill and terrify as Hank and Manny tumble down lush cliffs and are swept away by rushing streams. Practical concerns like finding food are dismissed, as Jason Kisvarday’s fantastical production design has Hank use branches and vines and flowers to create magical “sets” in which Hank can teach Manny how people meet and fall in love. We may question if Hank is an especially knowledgeable teacher, but the yearning behind the endeavor is real, and moving. The time in the woods becomes less a survivalist tale, than an even more cracked version of Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen playing house in the forest in Terence Malick’s Badlands—another tale in which damaged, child-like souls act out a performative fantasy of adulthood, before leaving the forest to face grimmer realities.
Swiss Army Man’s dialogue makes passing references to Superman, Jurassic Park, Laura Dern; and the minimal plot devotes significant time to analyzing an image found on a cell phone. Perhaps then, these nods to other movies are intentional.
Thinking about cinema and its potential does seem at the heart of The Daniels’s work. Swiss Army Man won a grant from The Dolby Sound Institute, which promotes audio as a storytelling tool. The filmmakers used this support to create an immersive sound experience, or as Daniel Kwan explains, to “make a small movie sound huge”. Despite many outrageous action scenes, the film is also full of small, perfect moments, like the image of Hank and Manny taking refuge in a moonlit cave, as rain falls steadily outside like a lullaby. At other times, we go deep inside Hank’s troubled head: His thoughts morph into song fragments, which turn into the haunting A Capella chorus composed by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of Manchester Orchestra.
Despite the controversy surrounding Swiss Army Man’s debut, Daniel Sheinert and Dan Kwan received the Sundance Directing Award. Their mastery of the technical tools of film-making warrants this honor, but credit is also due for the performances they coax from their stars. Daniel Radcliffe gives a fearless performance, allowing himself to be dragged and posed in ridiculous, undignified positions; creating a series of odd and hilarious facial expressions for his corpse; and managing to inject his lines with awe and whimsy as he imagines what a dead man gradually finding his voice might sound like. Paul Dano provides the perfect foil in this deconstructed buddy movie—it is hard to imagine an actor more ideally cast to express the childlike wonder and confusion Dano brings to this gentle, broken soul.
The sweetness of the film may be its most startling quality. As with the shorter works of The Daniels, the raunchy, gross-out humor of Swiss Army Man never descends to sexist frat boy ugliness, despite ample opportunity. Instead, Hank invites us into the arrested development world of a man-child equally concerned with bodily functions and the purest of emotions. When Hank invites Manny on a quest to find home, it is acceptance and kindness he seeks.
Work too hard to make sense of this under-developed narrative, and you may miss the chance to laugh out loud at that rarest of movie offerings—a film where anything might happen next. And if you think the bathroom humor inappropriate for date night, consider taking a twelve year-old boy with you: a little bro or nephew will get the jokes and simply accept this innocent fable. The kid’ll have a great time, and you’ll help the film generate enough box office for The Daniels to make another movie. And that would be a good thing.
Selma Thompson: A Lifetime Member of The Writers Guild of America, East, she has written scripts for television, cable and studios. Her work has won a Cine Golden Eagle and been nominated for a Prism Award. She is also a script consultant, and teaches screenwriting and script analysis at NYU, where she was awarded the Excellence in Teaching Award. Educated at Princeton University and The University of London, she holds an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Tisch School of the Arts/NYU