Swiss Army Man

Posted by Joel Copling on June 30, 2016

The suicidal man must teach himself how to live again. The crux of "Swiss Army Man" is that simple, but don't let me fool you into thinking this is a standard-issue character study. The film is a very funny, absurdist comedy in which the vessel for the man's rebirth comes in the form of a corpse that has washed up onto the beach of the solitary island on which the man has been stuck, alone, for an unknown period of time. This corpse has some strange abilities, some of which it would be criminal to reveal and not the strangest of which is the ability to project forward on the momentum and speed built by its explosive flatulence. Before I lose you entirely, I will just say that, yes, there are a lot of involuntary chuckles to be had within this material, but writers/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (billed as "the Daniels") keep a steady balance between humor and sadness.

That's because the internal crux here is mournful in nature. Again, the man in question, Hank (Paul Dano), has been stuck on an island for some time. He's right on the verge (in the middle of the act, actually) of suicide when notices the corpse in question. He thinks it's an injured man at first, but upon approaching it, the man's real state of being dead is revealed--the clammy, grey face, the limpness preceding rigor mortis, the unblinking eyes with no light behind them. A steady stream of gas issues from its posterior when Hank attempts to resuscitate it, and there's a broadly amusing stretch wherein Hank's return to attempting suicide is interrupted by the sound of the bodily function. Eventually Hank rides the corpse like a jet-ski off of the island, soon reaching a wooded area some miles away.

You did not hallucinate having read that last sentence. Yes, this is a film in which our sorrowful protagonist saves himself from a lifetime of island-squatting by riding a gaseous corpse from that island to the mainland. Needless to say, there's some context in which this must be placed--context that cannot simply be explained away by placing the film in a subgenre of comedy. The corpse is "played" (and, later, played as the body grows more sentient and loses the relativity-denoting quotations) by Daniel Radcliffe in a fascinating performance of great physical dexterity and stunted emotional growth. This is not simply an actor playing dead but an actor having to convey a greatly simplified existence through little physical interaction with his co-star (That Radcliffe did his own stunts is simply more proof of his having, long ago, separated creatively from the role that got him here). It's a strong performance of a man essentially starting at the beginning and learning about life.

The catch is that the corpse, dubbed "Manny" by Hank, learns about life from a man who no longer has the will to live. That's where the heart of the film is, and the lion's share of its concise 95 minutes is spent in the company of these two characters. "Manny" learns about language from Hank's one-sided conversations that eventually become two-sided, singing from a slowed-down riff of a terrible one-hit wonder that Hank has stuck in his head, love from his first encounter with a scantily-clad bikini model in a discarded "Sports Illustrated" (which, of course, spawns a certain conversation about personal gratification that in turn inspires some of the film's bigger laughs), and honesty from those times in which gas (or, when used as a makeshift fountain spring, water) issues from his body. There's an actorly give-and-take here, with Dano's sense of empathy for the character he's playing bouncing off Radcliffe's naivete nicely.

The plot eventually catches us up to the point that both men must escape back to their lives, either or both possibly involving a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) whose picture provides the way. The denouement is where the film's only major misstep occurs, as the film inevitably brings to the point of questioning what has happened in Hank's head and what's been real. It's not the act of leaving us to question this that is the problem but the fact that Kwan and Scheinert themselves seem not to know--or, if they know, then not to grasp how to convey the idea with the right level of uncertainty. As is, the film seems simply to trail off, but it's a pretty small issue in the grander scheme of things. There's an outrageous but surprisingly moving tale of platonic connection at the center of "Swiss Army Man" that uncertainty about the unconscious conclusion it might or might not reach cannot truly interrupt.

Film Information

Paul Dano (Hank), Daniel Radcliffe (Manny), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Sarah), Richard Gross (Hank's Dad).

Directed and written by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert.

Rated R (language, sexual material).

95 minutes.

Released in select cities on June 24, 2016.