We’ve got a weird one tonight, folks.
Swiss Army Man comes to us from writer/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert — collectively known as Daniels — who make their feature debuts here. It’s largely a two-hander, with arthouse cinema darling Paul Dano playing one of our two main leads. The other lead actor, Daniel Radcliffe, plays the eponymous Swiss Army Man. And he’s not called that because he was ever actually in the Swiss Army.
The film opens with Hank (Dano), who’s somehow gotten himself stranded on a desert island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Fresh out of options, Hank attempts to kill himself. But just as the noose breaks, Hank finds a corpse washed up on the shore (later nicknamed “Manny”, played by Radcliffe).
And then the corpse farts. It lets out a long, huge fart. In point of fact, this slowly decomposing ex-person is so full of gas that Hank is able to ride him like a jet ski out into the ocean and onto the mainland. (I guess Manny must have been a politician.)
Anyway, Hank and his deceased savior have now washed up on a totally different shore and they have no idea where they are. But given how much trash is strewn throughout the forest, there must be civilization nearby. Hank drags Manny along for some semblance of company, only to find that Manny has all manner of improbable abilities that border on magical. Through some kind of bizarre rigor mortis, he can chop wood, start fires, and shoot projectiles from his mouth. He can store water and other objects in his throat. His teeth are razor-sharp. His erection serves as a compass. The list goes on and on.
And as if all of that wasn’t enough, Manny starts talking. Yes, the dead man in this movie talks. He talks quite a lot, actually.
It’s unclear whether Manny is actually capable of talking (or anything else he does, for that matter) or if his actions are simply the product of a delirious mind. In any case, Manny has apparently been dead for so long that he’s forgotten what being alive is like. And this is where we get into the veritable cornucopia of themes that the film has to offer.
First of all, bodily humor is the order of the day. That should’ve been obvious when I first mentioned the farting corpse. But the bodily humor is all done in such a way that it draws attention to what having a body really entails. A prominent example concerns shit. Precisely because shit is digested food, there’s a pretty good chance (especially out in the wild, where this film takes place) that every pile of shit was once made out of something alive. And as the film puts it, that’s the eventual fate of every living being: To die, to get turned into shit, and then to get mixed in with the shit that used to be somebody else until there’s nothing left.
Then of course there’s the actual production of shit. There’s a great deal of attention drawn to our strange need to hide and be ashamed of our bodily functions, even though we all know damn well that everyone does it. We are all farting, fucking, crying, masturbating, pissing, shitting, spitting, sneezing, coughing sacks of highly temperamental wet meat. So why aren’t we more forthright about our needs and desires for sex? Why are we ashamed to cry? Why do we scorn someone who openly cuts a loud fart? We all do it, and we all know that we all do it, so why not just treat it as a fact of life and move on?
The film moves on from there to social etiquette and taboos. The stuff we can’t say, no matter how badly we want to. The unspoken rules we have to follow, with no reason given as to why. The messy, contradictory, convoluted, ever-changing protocols of love and courting. All of this stuff is fair game, especially because our two main characters are out in the middle of nowhere and one of them is dead, so it’s not like there’s any particular reason for being polite or ashamed of anything.
The whole movie is all about the question of why we can’t just say whatever we want and do whatever we want, at peace with the knowledge that we’re all just an overly elaborate package of worm food. The answer, of course, is that we can’t act that way precisely because human beings are so fragile. It’s so easy for us to wound each other — physically, mentally, and emotionally — that of course we have to be sensitive to each other’s breaking points. It’s tough to find a middle ground, but it’s definitely possible — and according to the film, detrimental — to get stuck too far at one extreme or the other.
All of these ideas are explored in various ways, and not just through interactions between the main characters. Eager to try and jog Manny’s memory of being alive, the two of them act out all sorts of real-world scenarios, using props and costumes put together with whatever sticks and discarded items are lying around nearby. It gives the whole film a distinctly childlike aesthetic, rather like these two grown adults have reverted to kids playing make-believe with whatever props they could cobble together. It’s quite endearing.
Another crucial part of that tone is of course the music. Andy Hull and Robert McDowell have put together a score full of music that feels almost improvised. It sounds like music that would be randomly thrown together by two people with nothing to do, but it still sounds cheery and offbeat in a way that fits the movie. And of course, since pop culture is such a huge part of modern life, Hank and Manny naturally discuss things like movies and songs, etc. The most prominent cases in point — for whatever random reason — are the Jurassic Park theme and “Cotton-Eyed Joe” by Rednex, both of which are repeatedly referenced and covered as the plot unfolds.
Regarding our two leads themselves, Paul Dano is so far into his wheelhouse with this one that of course he turns in some fine work. It’s Daniel Radcliffe who really outdoes himself with this one. He thoroughly commits to this character, and so much of the humor in this film hinges on his reactions or lack thereof. Portraying a dead man that nonetheless moves and talks is of course a tremendous physical challenge, and it’s fascinating to watch Radcliffe as he pulls it off so well.
A mention is also due to Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who appears in occasional flashes throughout the picture. She’s always a reliable talent and a radiant screen presence, so she does a lot to elevate this “mystery woman” role. Oh, and if you know anything about Shane Carruth, keep an eye out for his cameo near the end.
Swiss Army Man is a truly oddball movie, packed to the gills with some deeply intriguing thoughts about life, interpersonal connections, and what it means to be human in this day and age. Radcliffe’s performance is exceptional, and the whole film is brimming with energy. Though the film threatens to get derailed toward the end, with some thoughts on the subjective nature of reality, and though there are some fleeting moments of the “arthouse white guy ennui” that’s paid Paul Dano’s bills for so long, this is still a sweet and highly inventive little comedy that demands to be seen.