‘Swiss Army Man’ Review: Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe Go On a Bizarre Fart-Fueled Adventure
If you’ve heard anything about Swiss Army Man then you already know one very important detail: Daniel Radcliffe is a farting corpse. That may be enough to make you stop reading and decide this film isn’t for you. After all, there were walkouts during the premiere on Friday night (though when aren’t there walkouts?). But wait, there is more to this completely nutty adventure of hypnotic imagery and childlike fantasy. If you’re intrigued by the idea of how such an obscene and immature level of humor can give way to one of the most enjoyably bizarre, confounding and visually inspired movie-watching experiences, then bear with me.
After seeing Swiss Army Man and stewing over what exactly Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s feature film debut is about and what the hell I had subjected myself to, I wondered how to describe its bizzaro plot without giving too much away. Part of what makes Paul Dano and Radcliffe’s fantastical comedy such a distinct viewing experience is entering it with little to no knowledge or expectations. Leaving yourself open to surprise is sometimes the best way to absorb something as undefinable and unprecedented as Swiss Army Man — there is honestly nothing like this movie. In the most basic description, the film follows Dano’s Hank, a lonely, depressed man stranded on an island. He’s about to kill himself until he sees a dead corpse (Radcliffe) wash ashore, and soon after discovers its powers.
Radcliffe’s motionless corpse suddenly becomes animated and introduces himself as Manny. He doesn’t remember anything else though, so Hank teaches Manny how to talk, think and the basics of living as the two trek through a forest hoping to find their way back home. Eventually Hank discovers the many useful survival tools Manny’s body is capable of, hence the title. I won’t spoil the utterly weird and disorienting fun of what each of those “tools” are, but let’s just say Manny is very helpful with providing water, quick transport (via his corpse’s build up of gas) and catapulting. Whether or not Manny is actually alive, Hank’s hallucination, an element of magical realism or a comedic device used for parody’s sake is something best left up to interpretation.
As a recommended prerequisite, you may want to familiarize yourself with the filmmaker’s music video work. The two, collectively known as the DANIELS, have made videos for The Shins, Chromeo and Passion Pit. But their best known and most outrageous work was for DJ Snake and Lil John’s “Turn Down for What,” the video where male sexuality loses control to a level of sheer insanity. Swiss Army Man is a feature-length exploration of that same slow-mo-meets-frantically explosive visual style with a heavier dose of absurd comedy. Like “Turn Down for What,” the DANIELS’ film uses body parts as plot devices that are a goofy and creative commentary on dormant masculinity, mortality and love.
Okay so you’re still probably stuck on the fart jokes, aren’t you? Full disclosure: This movie has a lot of them, and far too many. I don’t consider myself the target audience for fart jokes, and find most uses of “potty humor” childish and distasteful. While equally gross and imaginative, the film's juvenile humor is not merely exercised as a desperate plea for easy laughs, though one could make that argument. Instead the DANIELS’ silly humor gives way to an uninhibited and outlandish creativity that fuels the film’s visual style, largely reminiscent of Michel Gondry. It’s like these two filmmakers watched Cast Away, tripped on Peyote in the woods, shared personal stories, and Swiss Army Man was the result.
After the premiere screening, the DANIELS said the project began as a fart joke, then turned into “an opportunity to explore mortality and big ideas with fart jokes.” That’s the most succinct way to sum up Swiss Army Man, a film where (perhaps) fart jokes are the ridiculous metaphor for being a weirdo and having to restrain your weirdness in a stuffy, conservative society. But even that assessment is a bit reaching. Though the film does ruminate on larger ideas of what it means to be alive and the fear of dying, it mainly operates on a surface level, and is usually undercut by a fart joke. That seems to be the point though, that when life gets too heavy to deal with, just resort to being your totally weird self and laugh about it. Or perhaps the film is an unbridled, imaginative expression of masculinity in crisis, where boyish urges and existential musings fuse into a visually explosive adventure.
Swiss Army Man never feels like it’s taking itself too seriously, and just when it seems like it is, the movie runs in another unexpected direction, like a hyperactive child amped up on Sudafed. Whatever the destination, the road to get there is a wild, hilarious, bizarre and stupefying ride. Love it or hate it, you certainly won't forget it.