Swiss Army Man Is a Sweet, Flatulent Adventure
Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano star in an energetic indie film about the relationship between a lonely man and a magical corpse.
Almost everyone who heard of Swiss Army Man in the months leading up to its release has probably heard the surreal new comedy referred to as “the farting-corpse movie.” Wisely, the film doesn’t shy away from that provocative label. In its opening minutes, Swiss Army Man shows its protagonist Hank (Paul Dano) stranded on a desert island and contemplating suicide, when Daniel Radcliffe’s prostrate, flatulent corpse washes up on the beach. After some contemplation, Hank approaches the figure; as the film’s score begins to swell, Hank starts to sing along, mounting the body and riding it into the open ocean, propelled by its, well, gas power. Swiss Army Man wants its audience to buy in early—if you’re on board with all of that, then the next 90 minutes should be a delight.
The film is the feature debut of the writing and directing duo known as “Daniels” (Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan), a pair of visually inventive upstarts who have built an impressive resume of music videos and commercials in recent year. Swiss Army Man is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a highly distinctive work, one that unites its gorgeous cinematography, DIY special effects, and soaring music (which Hank frequently chimes in on) around a surprisingly touching tale of finding comfort in one’s own skin. The film recalls Michel Gondry’s emphasis on practical, yet dreamlike visual magic, with a uniquely American gross-out twist—a combination that makes Swiss Army Man one of the most exciting new comedies of the year.
Back to the farting corpse. Swiss Army Man spends no time explaining what Hank is doing on a desert island, or how he got there; neither do viewers get any adequate reasoning for who Manny (the name Hank assigns to the body played by Radcliffe) is or where he comes from. The metaphors are broad and easily recognized: Hank is a lonely sort, besieged by social anxieties and insecurities about his appearance, who has barricaded himself away from society, whether accidentally or on purpose. Manny begins his life in the film as a basically inanimate object (except for all the farting), but as he and Hank begin to chart a path home, he develops a personality beyond the random bodily functions.
At first Manny is infantile, making simple noises and asking Hank basic questions about life and human behavior. He quickly develops into a horny, extroverted teenager, displaying many more natural biological quirks, before maturing into adulthood. This rapid evolution all happens within the rotting, limp body portrayed by Radcliffe, who offers an incredible physical performance that often boils down to a single eye-twitch or the particular hoarseness of a line reading. Scheinert and Kwan set themselves, and Dano, a daunting challenge with Swiss Army Man—95 percent of its screen time involves just Hank and the body he’s lugging around the forest—and yet it remains gloriously energetic throughout.
Hank is both embarrassed by Manny’s inadvertent openness—from the farting to his frequent erections to his penchant for asking probing personal questions—and also deeply afraid of loneliness and mortality, pining over a picture of an anonymous woman on his phone. Manny’s very existence is a direct challenge to Hank’s various insecurities, and while the film’s plot is ostensibly about them getting back to civilization, it’s quickly clear that Hank’s self-worth is the real mountain the pair need to summit.
The downside of this arc is that this is an indie film recycling an age-old indie trope—that of the introverted, lonely white dude, unlucky in love and pining for a silent woman who isn’t afforded similar agency by the plot. Swiss Army Man does a decent job subverting this arc but can’t quite overcome it: This is Hank’s story more than anything, and though the film’s conclusion does flip some narrative expectations on their head, it remains his story.
To its credit, Swiss Army Man isn’t trying to be a traditional sad-ballad rom-com, but rather a celebration of the connection between Hank and Manny, and the strange mutability of their partnership. The relationship evolves from a parent-child dynamic, to adolescent best friends, to ostensible romance, gleefully blurring the lines of their connection every time. Dano and Radcliffe throw themselves into each new configuration with admirable aplomb. That’s why Swiss Army Man works—from the gassy opening minutes, it’s a film asking the viewer to meet it on its terms, and its winning performers make for ideal ambassadors. Those who can bring themselves to embrace the premise and the cavalier shattering of the fourth wall should be with it right until the absurd, bleak, yet somehow joyous, end.