Written and directed by Daniels (Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan) | 97 min | ▲▲▲△△
One genuinely positive thing I’ll say about what we’ve seen at the multiplex in 2016—there’ve been some peculiar outliers. I’m thinking about The Neon Demon and The Lobster when I say that, and Swiss Army Man can join those films in being deliriously weird and difficult to categorize.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll have a sense of what you’re in for. Hank (Paul Dano) is a dude stuck on a desert island, bitter and alone. Just as he’s about to hang himself, he spots a body wash up in the surf. This is Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), whose rotting corpse is full of surprises, including flatulence powerful enough to allow Hank to ride Manny back to the mainland like a jet-ski. Once there, Hank carries Manny into the woods, and they get to know each other a little better. Turns out that Manny can talk, though he can’t remember anything about life, so Hank fills him in on the peculiarities of being human, with an emphasis on love, body function, and masturbation.
If this sounds like a twist on a bro comedy, there’s definitely elements of that, though it’s much more whimsical and bittersweet. First off, you have to make peace with the possibility it’s all happening in Hank’s head. Then there’s room for lovely, elaborate, theatrical fantasy, salient commentary on how men view women and the impact of porn, as well as a warm, homoerotic undertone. All this said, the film seems to have a too-forgiving view of the creepiness of some men, here framed as a harmless adoration from a distance. It’s a problem bigger than the suggested necrophilia.
Technically, the Daniels push into Ben Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild territory, using editing, imagery, and music to create something more magical and transcendent than the farting and jerking off content might suggest, while Dano and especially Radcliffe commit to the their parts wholeheartedly. Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes a welcome late appearance.
I felt a lot of affection for Swiss Army Man, largely due to the return of that delightful feeling (especially credit The Lobster again) that I was seeing something genuinely fresh. Marks off for the political bones (and boners), but what works well is the comic absurdity that carries right through to the final scene.