Yes, this is the notorious movie starring Daniel Radcliffe as a flatulent corpse. Yes, it’s the scatological indie flick that played Sundance this year to walkouts and WTF? reactions along with some praise. Equal parts Castaway, The Trouble With Harry and Weekend at Bernie’s, the surprisingly sweet and celebratory Swiss Army Man marks the feature writing and directing debut of music video directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who bill themselves as “Daniels.” Their big-noise music video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon, “Turn Down for What,” us up to half a billion views, and on their movie debut they may be certifiably gonzo. You can’t say they didn’t swing for the weird fences with Swiss Army Man, a true oddity based on a self-generated idea “Daniels” called “so bad that it didn’t deserve to be made.”
Paul Dano plays Hank, a desert island castaway and chronic sad sack who is about to end it all by hanging himself. Then he spots the body of Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washed up by the surf and dumped, farting wildly, onto the sand. The desperate Hank uses Manny’s mighty expulsions to jet-ski his way to civilization, or at least to a stretch of shoreline bordering acres of redwoods.
Rescue doesn’t look anywhere near immediate, so it’s lucky the dead guy comes in handy in many other ways. Not only can Manny’s farts light campfires and his body be pumped to supply lifesaving water, but his unique powers can also be used to catch fish and fight off animal predators like raccoons and bigger, more dangerous beasts. But as Manny begins to move, talk and feel emotions, he also morphs into something Hank has never had: a friend, a link with his fellow man, a reason to live.
Hank comes to believe that a cell phone photo of a mysterious beauty (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) may hold the key to their survival. So he drags and carries Manny’s body through the woods to find help and get home—wherever that is. Along the way, he also tries his best to reanimate Manny and rekindle his memories of the woman and his past. Hank teaches him to sing, to surrender to the joys of masturbation and to proudly fly his freak flag.
Hank imagines and creates memorable moments, dates and chance meetings from Manny’s romantic life and, during a drunken, magical night, a homoerotic bond even develops between them. It’s in these scenes that the movie is at its most open-hearted while, at the same time, at its weirdest and most unsettling.
Swiss Army Man has an infectiously deadpan tone and both actors are exceptionally good at humanizing even the most out their situations. They minimize what’s slapsticky and twee about the central concept and instead dig deep down into what’s very good about the material, especially its surreal, melancholy undertones.
The whole thing gets a mighty assist from Andy Hull and Robert McDowell’s richly whimsical music score that tees-off from improvisational sounds uttered by both characters. That some of the score occasionally recalls the playful brilliance of Smile by Brian Wilson—whom Dano played spectacularly in Love & Mercy—only adds to the insane if marginal charms of the whatchamacallit that is Swiss Army Man.