Swiss Army Man
* * * 1/2
One of the most audacious movies in years, Swiss Army Man is many things—whimsical flight of fancy, poignant buddy movie, ingenious survival tale and very probably dexterous work of movie art. It is also a picture that will sharply divide audiences in its patent absurdity, which approaches, by the film’s conclusion, something quite sublime. Its directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (or Daniels, as they are known), won the directing prize at Sundance this year, and their peculiar, distinctive touches yield a movie that is an amalgam of the fantastic and the tender, and one that takes awhile to settle into but ultimately grows in power.
We know this much—castaway Hank (Paul Dano), about to hang himself on the beach of a deserted island, finds an unlikely savior in the form of a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) that washes up before him. But this isn’t just any dead man, rather, one with a very special talent for extreme flatulence. Seriously.
Inanimate but for his gaseous bowels, Manny (Radcliffe) sputters about in the surf until voila!—Hank pulls down his pants, climbs astride and deploys his overactive bowels as a high-speed motorboat across the breaking waves.
They arrive somewhere along what appears to be the Pacific Northwest shoreline. Initially, Hank carries his Swiss Army friend on his back, dwarfed by redwoods but finding a variety of clever ways to employ Manny’s body to spirit them along through the dense forests, up steep cliff walls and into sheltering caves.
But after Manny’s mouth becomes a veritable water spigot, he seems to come back to life, albeit more reanimated cadaver than truly human. Unable to speak but increasingly adept at communicating via gestures, grunts and bodily functions, he’s lucid but remembers nothing of his former life, identity or nature, and knows nothing of the human experience.
Building a forest village—which looks like every kid’s fantasy of a secret fort in the woods—and employing all kinds of inventive role-playing, Paul sets about helping Manny rediscover himself. The special nature of these moments should not be undersold; rarely has a move incorporated such invention and sweetness, and it would be hard not to recall Michael Gondry’s similarly innovative Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as the pair’s offbeat friendship becomes something deeper, an examination of the ability to save someone else and be redeemed in the process.
Of course, the magical world cannot last, and by the time Hank and Manny end up in the backyard of a woman Hank has worshipped from afar (Mary Elizabeth Winsteadt), authorities intervene and Hank’s alienated father shows up, this original movie has quite a cumulative force in Dano’s beautifully acted final moments. The final scene suggests a soul connection beyond friendship and, perhaps, into something else. It is truly special.
Radcliffe, acting as he never has before and likely never will again, delivers a challenging character that speaks alternately in rapid and halting sentence fragments, employing a monotone and infusing Manny with a gradual humanizing that is quite something to see.
If you’ve thought of Weekend at Bernie’s, you wouldn’t be wrong, but imagine that movie minus slapstick and delivered with an auteurist directorial stamp, two indelible performances and informed by a deep introspection.
And then there’s the music, often sung acapella by both actors in isolated notes or sounds, sometimes melodic, percussionist, sometimes verses on companionship and other times just ribald ditties.
None of this should work, and while it may sounds preciously sophomoric or twee to a fault, in execution Swiss Army Man is a work of unmistakable originality and vision. You’ve never seen anything like it before, and I loved it.