Unquestionably an exercise in sheer ludicrousness, Swiss Army Man is nevertheless one of the most shamelessly earnest films I’ve seen this year. At times, it feels like the film is trying to confound, seeing how much weirdness you can take before you walk out, almost daring you to do so. And yet, it wants to inspire you and the film’s spirit feels far too generous to comply with this reductive reading of it.
Hank (Paul Dano), a young man stranded on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean, has his suicide attempt interrupted by a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) that washes up on shore. Discovering that its flatulence can propel both of them through the water, Hank rides the corpse across the ocean to land, where he discovers the corpse can talk, is named Manny, and has special powers and quirks such as dispensing fresh water from his mouth, shooting objects like bullets from his orifices and an erection that points them home. What follows as they make their way through the wilderness is an oddly touching story of two young men bonding over their shared oddness and social outsider status, and Hank helping Manny discover, or remember, what it is to be alive (or is it the other way around?).
Writer/directors Daniel Schienert and Daniel Kwan (Daniels, as they’re credited) seem to be making a movie about themselves, since the film is a kind of simulation of the joy of finding a kindred spirit, and it makes for an endearing and personal kind of buddy comedy, like Weekend at Bernie’s made by two guys who stay up every night watching Adult Swim and Terrence Malick films. This being their first feature, the duo demonstrate a competent grasp of cinematic craft. Their implementation of sound is impressive (the amount of different variations of fart noises is staggering and amusing), and it’s solidly edited from moment to moment, shot to shot. Music is their real achievement however, the elegiac score, by Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, being key to the film’s style and worldview. Dano and Radcliffe often sing or hum the score themselves diegetically, as if the music erupts from within them. It tunes us in to the characters and also seems to illustrate the directors’ view that immense beauty and powerful emotions lie within everyone, just waiting to burst forth and find expression through song. Often film scores just tell us how we the audience should be feeling rather than how the characters are feeling, and this is a clever utilization of an often misunderstood cinematic device that gets us to identify with the pair, particularly Hank.
Daniels also get stellar performances from their two leads, with Dano solidifying his reputation as one of America’s finest young actors, giving a wounded and soulful performance that, while not amongst his best, shows how reliable a character actor he is. Radcliffe meanwhile has the unenviable/enviable role of making a dead guy come to life (excuse the pun). Its degree of difficulty is high, but when pulled off, as it is here, this type of role lets you steal just about every scene you’re in, and Radcliffe certainly does without ever feeling showy. It can’t be easy capturing Manny’s wide-eyed naiveté without being able to emote much, but Radcliffe’s successful performance should hopefully start allowing this very talented actor to once and for all get out from under the shadow of a certain boy wizard he played not too long ago.
All this is to say that Daniels show unrefined but promising skill as directors, but they struggle as writers. As mentioned above, the movie is well edited on a micro level, but on a macro scale, it could use some tightening up, and I sense this is more a script problem, since the film feels long in the tooth and has a few too many points of staggeringly slow pacing. I wonder how much more enjoyable the film might have been with ten-to-fifteen minutes trimmed from its already brief 95 minutes. It feels like this whole film was a fun idea for a Vimeo or YouTube short that the two decided to stretch into a feature. And it has nothing to do with the films grotesque oddness; after a while it wins you over (or at least, you get used to it). The film feels undercooked and doesn’t have the narrative or cinematic thrust to totally justify itself.
But despite this, it’s a refreshing film, one whose tenor, its default mode of expression, is one of pure joy and humanistic wonder. It runs into some problems when you consider what this film might accidentally (or worse, intentionally) be endorsing, but it ultimately has some thought provoking things to say about human connection and the repressive shackles of social customs, politeness and “decency.” This message is dulled slightly by the films overly earnest and twee nature, but that doesn’t discredit its virtues.
I’m excited for Daniels and look forward to their future projects. With some practice and a refinement of their exciting and fresh sensibilities, they could become filmmakers worthy of interest. At worst, they’ll become fun cult directors.