Having gained some notoriety at Sundance earlier this year (where word quickly spread of a ‘Daniel Radcliffe farting corpse movie’, as well as audience walkouts), the quirky and perhaps difficult nature of Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan’s Swiss Army Man preceded its arrival in the UK… though I dare say it will still have surprised many a casual cinemagoer upon general release last month. Radcliffe – doing all he can to lose his Harry Potter heritage at the present time – does indeed star as a farting corpse, later christened ‘Manny’, who washes up on the shoreline at the exact point that apparent castaway Hank (Paul Dano) is about to commit suicide. In a bizarre opening sequence that sets the tone for much of the action that follows, Hank realises that he may be able to harness Manny’s flatulence, and subsequently attempts to ride the trumping cadaver like a flesh jet ski across the ocean, back to civilisation. Hank fails, but the appearance of Manny seems to give him a renewed sense of hope, and optimism; and the dead body is also a welcome source of company for the lonely survivor. At first Manny’s social interaction only extends as far as breaking wind, but with Hank’s encouragement the corpse begins to reanimate in other ways, first starting to talk before later developing to the point that he begins to echo Hank’s longing for a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who features heavily in Hank’s memories and who appears in photos on Hank’s phone.
There are plenty of silly and immature (and funny) jokes here, especially during the scenes in which ‘Swiss army man’ Manny is put to good use, aiding Hank’s survival in all sorts of bizarre ways. When the corpse gets an erection after looking at a Sports Illustrated-style magazine of women in swimsuits, for example, Hank spontaneously decides that the tall, proud, dead man’s stiffy can double as a useful compass that will lead them back to civilisation; and he later turns Manny into a makeshift hunting weapon, bending him over double and applying pressure to fire gas-powered buckshot at passing critters. Hank also constructs a wooden replica of a bus that he used to ride every day, before he ended up lost: we see the real bus in flashbacks, and that the mysterious woman in the photos was a regular passenger. Yet what are we to make of Hank’s decision to fashion a dress and a wig so that he can play the role of the woman in his re-staged fantasies, and what are we to make of him tutoring Manny to be decisive and forward when approaching ‘her’? And is he really trying to get back to civilisation?
If it wasn’t abundantly clear from the opening scene, the audience is supposed to be questioning Hank’s state of mind throughout the movie. Has he had some kind of mental breakdown? Well, presumably, the answer is ‘yes’. Was he ever shipwrecked, or is it all a construct, a figment of his imagination? And what are we to make of Manny and his ability to hold conversations, exactly? The two Daniels (writers as well as directors) go some way to answering these questions during a final act that takes us from fantasy to reality and back again; it just about works, largely thanks to all the hard work the two leads have put in up to that point in terms of selling their characters to the audience. The film is at its most moving when it finally does shed its silly streak and enters into a more melancholic, realistic phase, one which deals with human fragility and pain and complicated family relationships in a surprisingly tender, sad fashion, and there’s certainly some excitement to be had as you realise that the delicate house of cards that the cast and crew have constructed could come crashing down at any point. As I said above, I think the film just about holds together, and that’s largely due to the performances by Dano and Radcliffe (who delivers a terrific physical turn in order to make you believe in his character). I have some admiration for them, but must admit to feeling completely worn down by Swiss Army Man‘s near-incessant wackiness by the end; the lyrics to the original songs on the soundtrack by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell (from the band Manchester Orchestra), which reference the on-screen action, quickly got on my nerves, and there’s something irritably cutesy in having the two leads singing along when this isn’t really a musical. It’s a very Sundance-y piece, and I’m not sure that I’d want to sit through it again, but it’s also fun and charming at times; I managed to go along with most of it.