I watched Paul Dano ride Daniel Radcliffe across the ocean like a jet ski, propelled solely by the power of Radcliffe’s farts.
That’s not a sentence I anticipated writing about a film screening this year, but I guess I didn’t realize what was in store when I walked into Swiss Army Man, the debut feature from writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Over the past five years, the duo — known collectively just as "Daniels" — have established themselves as music video wunderkinds, turning out clips for everyone from Chromeo to Passion Pit. (The incredibly insane video for DJ Snake and Lil’ Jon’s "Turn Down For What"? That was them.) Swiss Army Man, however, is something altogether different, merging impeccable visuals and comic irreverence with an earnest heart the movie can’t quite come to grips with.
After the premiere screening at Sundance, the Daniels referred to their debut as a "fart drama." That’s about right.
One of the strangest, most audacious openings I've ever seen
Paul Dano plays Hank, a young man stranded on an island — how, where, or why, we don’t know, but he’s had enough and is ready to hang himself. Hank ends up changing his mind when a dead body washes up on shore — enter Radcliffe — and after trying to perform CPR Hank realizes he’s unleashed a torrent of gas from the corpse. (Trust me; you haven't heard fart sound effects until you've heard them in Dolby Atmos.) Radcliffe’s character, eventually referred to as Manny, shimmies and shakes under the power of his flatulence, until he starts propelling himself out in the open ocean. Hank jumps aboard, riding the corpse away from the island in grand victory.
It’s one of the strangest, most audacious openings I’ve ever seen, and it’s really just where the story begins. Hank ends up on the mainland, still lost, and feeling indebted to the corpse he brings Manny’s body along. Only Manny isn’t as dead as he seems at first; he slowly comes to life, an eye blink here, a slurred word there, and soon the pair strike up a friendship as they try to trek their way out of the wilderness. Manny ends up becoming the swiss army man of the film’s title, as Hank realizes he can use him as a water jug (Hank frequently drinks water poured from Manny’s corpse-mouth), an air cannon (he shoves projectiles down Manny’s gullet and shoots them out to hunt), and a compass (after looking at an old Sports Illustrated, Manny gets an erection and, well, points the way forward). It’s the Daniels taking their fascination with the malleability of the human body, used to such great effect in their videos, and turning it into a narrative device in a totally different context.
The strangest thing is that so much of it actually works
I realize that the above paragraph sounds the ramblings of a madman, but here’s the strangest thing about Swiss Army Man: a lot of it actually works. Dano and Radcliffe commit completely to their performances, and as the two unlikely friends travel, a familiar narrative emerges. Hank was a lonely young man filled with self-loathing who found himself incapable of connecting with other people, and as he teaches Manny about the world he slowly begins teaching himself about his own failings and faults. There’s nothing novel about this kind of subject matter — Charlie Kaufman has built an entire career around it — but it provides a general framework for the Daniels to hang all manner of weirdness. Still, for all the comedic and visual ingenuity, parts of the story do start to feel a little stale, particularly when it comes to the movie’s version of the manic pixie dream girl. In this case it’s Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a girl Hank adored from afar but never spoke to, and talking to her eventually becomes the focal point of their quest.
The combination of the bizarre and earnest keeps Swiss Army Man interesting, but there’s an awkward tension there, too. Every time the film gets too real or emotionally naked, it pushes back. Hank and Manny’s moments of personal honesty are some of the most beautiful in the film, but they’re almost invariably undercut by a joke or fart gag. It’s almost like the Daniels are tiptoeing up to the point of sincerity, but feel scared to commit, instead retreating behind the safety of gags and burbling sound effects.
While wildly creative and refreshingly subversive, I can’t really say that Swiss Army Man as a whole works, or even if I liked it. (I also have no idea who I would recommend it to, although I want everyone I know to see it just so I can discuss the damn thing.) What I do know is that I won’t forget it, and that the Daniels have made a daring first film full of courage, voice, and vision. Quite simply, I’m glad Swiss Army Man exists, not just for its own bizarro thrills, but for what it portends for the future of two savagely gifted filmmakers.
Swiss Army Man opens June 24th in limited release and July 1st in wide release.