From its first joyous expulsion of hot air, Swiss Army Man is resolutely – and proudly – the weirdest film of the year. But beyond that, the little indie that could has a geniality and complexity that make it worth overlooking its childish inclinations.
Hank (Paul Dano) is about to die alone on a desert island, suspended from a poorly tied noose, when a body (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore. The body’s unnatural flatulence provides Hank a novel means to escape his fate, and the two seek civilisation together, becoming friends and discovering deeper truths about life, the universe and everything.
That’s right – Manny, the corpse portrayed by Radcliffe, is essentially a multi-tool, a butt-belching deus ex machina the likes of which has never been seen on screen before. While ripping rump is a particular speciality, Manny’s disturbing versatility makes him the film’s gag generator, and debut directing duo The Daniels seem to have found a bottomless (sorry) pit of potential in their expired star. It seems unkind to say, but this may just be Radcliffe’s best performance.
The playful magical tone that hangs over the whole affair keeps things reasonably innocent, at least for a concept so mired in gallows humour. Once Manny starts speaking, the question of whether or not Hank is hallucinating is left unspoken; it’s hardly relevant to his survival.
The Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) have taken their music video prowess and applied it liberally, with both Radcliffe and Dano performing much of the film’s soundtrack a capella. It’s a very endearing trait, one that ties Swiss Army Man to the whimsical tradition of Wes Anderson, and certainly makes for a refreshing break from Manny’s rectal turbulence.
What surprises most is not the immaturity – which, once embraced, is immeasurably satisfying – but how much beauty and wonder can be spun out of a one-joke film. The pathos and candour of Radcliffe and Dano make them a perfect pair, and The Daniels show a great flair for their craft even as they indulge their inner children.
As the story develops, and the lives of both Hank and Manny are given clarity, we start to realise that the romantic advice Hank gives is deeply flawed, trapped in the past. Right when you might start to worry about that, The Daniels flip it on its head. They know exactly what they’ve created, and that self-awareness makes them formidable.
They stumble as they dip too deeply into the dark. Naturally, the narrative progresses to some pretty uncomfortable places, but it lingers there too long; so much so, one finds themselves wishing they’d just return to dropping whoppers.
In exploring the potential of the human body (and soul) even at its worst, The Daniels make grand statements about the transience of life, and they do it while releasing low-flying geese with gusto. Swiss Army Man proudly toots its own horn and encourages you to do the same. Maybe wait till you’ve left the cinema.
Swiss Army Man is in cinemas now.