Swiss Army Man is a creative and bizarre first feature from Daniels, whose lead pair’s performances keep you constantly engrossed, even if you might not be buying into the premise 100% while watching it.
And that premise, it’s about as out there and original as it gets.
Hank, a depressed and odd loner, has somehow become stranded on an island and decided to kill himself, but just when he is about to commit the act a body washes up on the beach. With the hope he might have someone on the island with him Hank delays his death, only to discover that the washed up body is dead itself. When the flatulence of the dead body begins propelling it around the surf, Hank gets the crazy idea of riding the corpse back to the mainland, and it works. Hank decides he must bring this corpse back to civilization with him and begins talking to it like an isolated and crazed person might, but the corpse begins communicating back to Hank, naming himself Manny. Manny becomes a sounding board for Hank, becoming a way for Hank to look introspectively at his own life problems before his island adventures, all while teaching Manny the ways of the world and how it could be.
So, if that plot description hasn’t scared you away yet, you probably will be able to get something out of Swiss Army Man. That is all in the first ten minutes or so of the film, and if you can laugh at Hank riding Manny like a jet ski powered by farts, you will surely laugh at the film. Manny is constantly farting actually, it’s baked into the soundtrack at all times, but he is also full of other magical powers that Hank discovers for their survival along the way. The pair end up making elaborate sets and shelters in the film, and Manny’s many abilities help make that all possible.
These elaborate recreations of Hank’s problems, in particular a supposed interaction with a woman on the bus, is an interesting way for Hank to try to sort his stuff out, but as more and more is revealed about Hank, the less comfortable we really feel about him as a person. Hank is a, kind of, introverted creep in his real life, but with Manny he is a sort of soulful guide to framing this blank slate into something somewhat human again. Hank realizing all of his worst personality traits and making sure Manny doesn’t strive for any of them is endearing and self-aware, even if he has no experience practicing these life lessons in his own life. Maybe Hank will be a better man after all of this and take all of his own advice when trying to operate in the world again, we don’t get to see that, but for a character that is borderline unsettling with his obsession you surprisingly leave the film feeling sort of hopeful for him if he can completely hit the reset button.
Daniels (directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) really play with your emotions over the course of the film. Hank’s backstory, as mentioned above, can be viewed as quite unsettling, but his bond and love with Manny will make you swoon at time. The pure joy these two have, and the connection you feel between them, drives the film through to the end and will linger with you afterwards. These two characters run the gauntlet of emotions together, their bond is tested through and through, and you want to see these two succeed in some capacity, but you don’t really know what is possible when one of the main characters is a corpse. The fantastical nature of Manny just keeps getting pushed, and pushed by Daniels, you really expect the film to just about go anywhere with him, and you are ready to go with him. That is a testament to Daniels as storytellers and the lengths they go to make their characters, even a corpse, fully realized.
I haven’t mentioned the actors at the core of this thing yet, and it’s basically a two-man show between Paul Dano as Hank and Daniel Radcliffe as Manny. They have wonderful chemistry together and feed off each other’s energy, or Radcliffe’s intentional lack thereof, from almost the instant they are thrown together. Radcliffe has to get the top marks for the pair though, as he does so much with just his eyes and voice. A puppet to Hank, Radcliffe never gets to move under his own accord, but he does so much with his delivery and the little glints of life he puts into Manny’s eyes. Dano does a great job of selling us on his bond with Manny, but also making us believe that he acts the complete opposite in regular society. Dano feels like someone who is rediscovering life as he instills it upon Manny, and the wide-eyed enthusiasm he omits is infectious. Mary Elizabeth Winstead shows up late in the film as well and exceptionally fills the need of the part, as is expected of her.
With Swiss Army Man, Daniels has created something truly unique that only grows upon reflection. Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano are both excellent at the center of this thing, with the former giving us one of the best comedic performances of the year. Swiss Army Man isn’t for everyone, not at all, but if you are feeling the trailer you should definitely give it a shot, it could end up being one of your most rewarding movie experiences this year.