Swiss Army Man pulls off a magic trick of tone and effect. It’s a movie about Hank (Paul Dano), a suicidal man who is literally at the end of his rope on a deserted island when a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on shore. Distracted from the task at hand, he goes over to investigate and discovers the corpse is extremely flatulent, leaking excess gas in gusts of whoopee cushion sound effects. Hank is at first indifferent, but then realizes the force of the blasts just might come in handy. And so the movie opens with a man riding a farting corpse like a jet ski across the open water. Quickly, though, he’s is knocked off his unusual vehicle and wakes up on yet another beach, the corpse still there intermittently sputtering away. (It’s here that you might be reminded of the old joke about the monkey, the cow, and the cork.) Here’s a movie that’s immediately absurd, juvenile, and undeniably morbid, and yet somehow manages to become one of the sweetest, most life-affirming films in recent memory. That is definitely a magic trick.
I suppose hanging out with a dead body is a good way to make you appreciate life. As the film progresses, and the trumpeting from the corpse’s rear dies down, the lonely, starving, lost Hank strikes up a sort of friendship with the dead man. He names him Manny and drags him through the forest, talking to the stiff about the trouble he’s in. Magical realism – the sort that allows a dead body to become a mode of transport – is even more apparent as the body starts to talk back, first with lips flapping through rigor mortis rictus, then with better ease. He can’t magically walk or move his arms. He just gets chatty. (This leaves open some possible doubt as to Hank’s mental state.) Manny doesn’t remember even basic facts about being alive, so Hank tells him about bodily functions, food, hobbies, family, feelings of isolation and inadequacy, and what love is like. Hank may be going insane, delirious from lack of human contact and starvation, but at least he can hold on to what’s valuable about life by explaining it one who lost it.
Hank carries Manny along, puppeteering the arms and legs at times to make it seem more like having a real living buddy. He eventually discovers the gas inside the corpse can power all kinds of unlikely makeshift anatomical tools. A drinking fountain sprays from Manny’s mouth. His arm springs with karate chop action. He can belch a grappling hook. (I won’t even tell you what body part becomes a compass.) All that and more too is very convenient. To see it is totally bizarre and more than a little gross. It skirts body horror to see a body manipulated in such unnatural and fantastical ways, but is presented with such matter-of-factness that it’s more like body comedy. One the one hand, it’s clearly not meant to be taken seriously, the men’s behavior and babbling banter an amusing outgrowth of an extreme coping mechanism. On the other, the filmmakers never mock the concept, treating it with respect for the emotional core. There’s a touching moment where Hank builds a fake bus out of branches and litter to reenact the act of seeing a pretty young woman on board and being too afraid to say something to her. As Manny’s heart swells in awe remembering flutters of attraction, it’s oddly moving.
What saves the movie from being another cutesy indie tied to eccentric quirk is the intelligence with which it is put together. Dano and Radcliffe deliver impressive performances, selling the weirdness by putting authentic feeling behind it. Dano plays frazzled and desperate, and the more we learn about Hank’s backstory it’s clear how sad a figure he really is. His loneliness and despair predate his getting lost in the wilderness. They’re outgrowths of self-pity and selfishness. (That crush he has on the girl on the bus is more than a little creepy in this context, and the movie knows it.) You might even say he’s dead inside, a fine mirror for the physically dead guy he strikes up oddball friendship with. Radcliffe (assisted by uncanny makeup and a macabre dummy stand-in seamlessly incorporated) does tremendous physical performing, allowing his limbs to hang limp as he mutters through his lines. It’s impossible to forget he’s dead, but the amount of life he’s able to breathe into this construct is remarkable. We don’t learn anything about Manny – who he is, how he got there – but the feeling generated by his post-mortem innocence is adorable and sympathetic, albeit laced with understandable melancholy.
This is the feature debut of writer-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, previously best known for the memorably strange music video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What,” which had a similar interest in grotesque and funny exaggerated body movements. With Swiss Army Man they take in a most unusual conceit and treat it with straight-faced wonder, like a deadpan riff on swooning inspirational triumph-of-the-human-spirit fare. And yet they totally believe it as well, letting cinematographer Larkin Seiple photograph the absurdities and the tender connection between the men with a loose, sunny, textured naturalness while musicians Andy Hull and Robert McDowell score it with a chanting choir of folksy acoustic rock uplift. There’s no reason this should work. On paper it sounds preposterous. But in practice everyone involved commits so fully and intensely to every scene and every development. It can’t help but work. It’s a provocation in content, but a gentle and casual sweetness in form. It doesn’t rest on easy gross out gags or shock value, is willing to get invested in its characters’ peculiar circumstances, and complicates its surface assumptions. The result is a genuinely unpredictable and wholly original movie, a true one-of-a-kind.