Hank (Paul Dano) has run away from his less than stellar life and taken a boat out to sea. He gets caught in a storm and winds up shipwrecked on a very small island without food or water. Preferring suicide to death by starvation and dehydration, Hank prepares to hang himself when he sees a man washed up on shore. Thinking this person might be able to help; Hank runs to the man but soon discovers he’s dead. The body begins releasing gas by farting and Hank notices the flatulence actually propels the body through the water. Hank uses part of the rope he planned on hanging himself with and ties it to the corpse, riding the body through the water like a jet ski. Hank falls off and wakes up on yet another beach but this time it appears he’s on the mainland. He ties the body to his back and carries it into the forest just off shore looking for help. Along the way, Hank collects some trash he finds that might prove helpful with survival. Hank and the corpse wait out a rain storm in a cave where the corpse fills with water dripping from the ceiling into his mouth. The next morning, Hank discovers the water within the body and tentatively drinks some discovering it is good. He talks to the corpse like an old friend and hears what sound like words coming from the body’s mouth when Hank presses on the chest. At one point, Hank believes he hears the word “Manny” come from the body and that’s what he names the lifesaving corpse…Manny (Daniel Radcliffe). Soon, Manny is talking in complete sentences to Hank. At first freaked out, Hank soon gets used to the idea of the talking corpse and he is soon sharing personal secrets with him. Manny doesn’t remember his former life so Hank tries to teach him the basics. Over the course of their journey, Hank discovers Manny’s arm is great at chopping wood. He finds if he puts small rocks down Manny’s throat and then squeezes his stomach the rocks will shoot out like a machine gun and kill small animals he can use for food. Manny’s flatulence can help start a campfire. He also finds that Manny’s innocence about the world shows him just how cowardly he’s been with his own life.
“Swiss Army Man” is nearly impossible to describe and not sound like a lunatic. It takes absurdism to levels most other movies wouldn’t dare approach. Writers and directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan take their silly story very seriously yet manage to fill the movie with moments of bizarre humor, uncomfortable honesty and genuine sweetness. While many may have a difficult time with a story that features a farting corpse whose erections act like a compass to guide the hero back to civilization it is very much worth the risk as “Swiss Army Man” may be the most imaginative film of the year.
Making this movie could not have been easy for Daniel Radcliffe. He spends a great deal of the film staring unblinkingly while water splashes in his face and landing face down in sand. He must have spent most of the shoot damp and dirty, caked in make up to give him a deceased look and unable to move. Despite all these hardships, Radcliffe makes a very compelling talking corpse. Radcliffe makes Manny the emotional center of the film even though the audience knows this is all likely a hallucination in Hank’s mind. Manny might represent that part of our personality that knows the bigger Truths of life and tells us in ways that are easy to understand and digest. Manny asks questions like a child. He is without guile or shame and he shows just how sad and pathetic Hank’s life is. Manny doles out the truth to Hank in bite-sized portions that slowly expose Hank’s fear and cowardice in dealing with his feelings. Despite being dead, Manny is the hero of the story.
Paul Dano has the unenviable job of playing a largely unlikable character yet he manages to turn Hank into the kind of person that is able to change and grow. Starting out crippled by his fear and shyness and scarred by the death of his mother early in life and the bullying nature of his father, Hank is the very definition of pathetic. The only person he apparently can speak with openly and honestly is a dead guy. Even then, Hank often holds back either his feelings or all of the truth about his life. A picture on the lock screen of his phone shows a woman he is attracted to and serves as the best example of how socially backward he is. I shan’t give away any more than that but the young woman, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, becomes the focus of much of the story. Dano excels at playing damaged characters. He received excellent reviews for his performances in “Little Miss Sunshine” and “There Will Be Blood” and he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance as a young Brian Wilson in “Love & Mercy.” Dano can tap into a level of pain and sadness deep within and not disappear into the abyss within the character, finding some hope in the darkness. Hank is about as low as any character Dano has ever played and he still manages to extract some light from all the gloom. Both Dano and Radcliffe turn in amazing performances.
“Swiss Army Man” will make the audience question what is reality and fantasy within the story. Is anything we’re seeing actually happening or is it all in Hank’s head? Is he really lost at sea or is he manufacturing everything in a fantasy or hallucination? Can Manny’s farts really propel him through the water like a jet ski? Can he really be used like a water fountain, a machine gun and a rocket launcher? Is Hank some kind of stalker and the object of his affection should be afraid of him? The movie unapologetically never answers any of these questions and that’s ok. The audience is left to debate and ponder whether we’re watching the delusions of a madman or some kind of wondrously magical chemistry and physics. The movie challenges you to come to your own conclusions or just accept what’s happening and not question it any further. It works either way.
“Swiss Army Man” is rated R for language and sexual material. Manny has a reaction to images in a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. His erection is prominent in his pants and seems to dance around. There’s nothing terribly sexy about any of it. Foul language is common throughout the film.
“Swiss Army Man” is the most bizarre movie I’ve seen that both made sense and was enjoyable. It lacks any embarrassment about how strange it is and challenges the audience to come along for the ride. It is unafraid to have one character that is emotionally stunted and more than a little pathetic and another that is dead. Many will scratch their heads and walk out thinking it is the stupidest movie ever made. I cannot argue with that assessment yet I think the film is brilliant and cannot encourage everyone too much to see it.
“Swiss Army Man” gets an enthusiastic five stars.
This week, a couple of wild men meet their match and we learn exactly what happens when we leave Fido and Fluffy home alone. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:
Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates—
The Secret Life of Pets—
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