Swiss Army Man is one of those rare films that works on an almost uncountable number of levels, and gives back just as much as you are willing to dig into it. It can be enjoyed equally as a 95 minute fart joke, a film about parenthood, or an existentialist meditation on what individuals sacrifice to join society. Much like its protagonists, Swiss Army Man is a movie completely removed from everything else, finally given the chance to break the rules and be unabashedly unique, to dance like nobody is watching, and because of that, is able to say and do things most other films are too polite to explore.
After being stranded on a desert island for an undetermined amount of time, Hank (Paul Dano) finally slides his head through a noose made of scrap when he spots another person wash up on shore. Scrambling to this body (Daniel Radcliffe), Hank discovers it to already be dead; but far from useless. Degeneration has filled the corpse with enough gas for Hank to ride it, jet-ski like, from his abandoned island to the edge of civilization. Still a ways from home, Hank keeps on discovering more uses for this magical corpse, from it magically providing an endless source of drinkable water to using its rigor-mortised frame a spring-loaded chopping tool. But even more extraordinary, the corpse begins to speak, introducing itself as Manny, and becomes Hank’s only friend in the world. A friend who doesn’t remember anything about life, whether it’s riding the bus, falling in love, what poop is, or Jurassic Park, but a friend nonetheless. So as Hank uses Manny’s fantastic abilities to help him get back home, he also explains to Manny what a home is and why he wants to return so badly to a life that only made him feel alone and unloved.
Swiss Army Man succeeds entirely on the talent and chemistry of Dano and Radcliffe. Ironically, given his character’s nature as a motionless corpse and a tabula rasa, it’s Radcliffe’s performance that steals the show. More than the surprising physicality the role requires – all the being poked, prodded, and manipulated; and the ragdolling – it’s his delivery that sells Manny and in turn, the entire movie. Radcliffe is ventriloquist and dummy; a curious, optimistic voice coming out of a jaw that can only barely move and unblinking eyes. And there’s a warmth beneath all of it. Manny becomes more excited to see the world as Hank describes it, dreaming of doing such mundane tasks as riding the bus in such a way that his happiness become infectious and will make you appreciate the overlooked experiences in your own life. Over the course of the movie, Manny goes from toddler, and through the muck of adolescence, ending one way or another at the other side without lifting a finger – literally.
And Dano completes the circuit as Hank, who is revealed very early on to be a desperately sad, unfulfilled person. The film tells us early one that in a moment where Hank’s life flashed before his eyes he had realized he had done nothing with it. Hank has lived a life paralyzed by shame and fear of rejection. He’s someone too and meek and afraid to see the world for himself, forced to explain it all to somebody else if he ever wants to return to it. Like almost every parent, Hank ends up projecting his ideas of how the world works, his fears, and his aspirations onto Manny so that both of them can learn how to overcome the barriers he’s set for himself. Dano takes Hank from exactly the sort of guy who would befriend a corpse out of desperation into a person who pushes his metaphorical child to be a bigger man than he thought he could be.
Aside from the parenting angle, there’s also a lot of Calvin and Hobbes in Hank and Manny’s relationship. Aside from Manny’s existential ambiguity; there’s the general thread running through Swiss Army Man that these are two boys have to use their imagination to explore and try to solve a world they don’t have access to. There’s an admittance that they’re grasping beyond their reach, but that doesn’t daunt them – not nearly as much as the other, more “mature” people in their lives have. It’s Hank and Manny’s isolation from the world and its rules allow them to make sense of themselves and their place in the universe through imagination, joy, and an unrestrained love for themselves and each-other.
Also like Calvin and Hobbes, Swiss Army Man is able to do this without a shred of pretention. It’s a movie that tackles existentialism and depression with masturbation and fart jokes. And while never self-important, Swiss Army Man clearly takes itself seriously. The film sincerely believes that poop humor makes life worth living. The first sequence of the film literally depicts a man stepping away from suicide because of a fart joke. The heart of this film is a love for humanity because we can be both low-and-high brow, simultaneously; because whether you’re the Pope or just some loser, everybody poops, and everyone can laugh at a fart.
And no matter who you are, you will laugh for at least one fart joke in this movie. Heck, one of them near the end might even make you cry. But for the most part, you will be laughing so hard you’ll miss jokes. There’s plenty of fart jokes and slapstick to go around, but a healthy amount of humor comes from Manny playing the fool, piecing-together Hank’s snippets of the world and repeating them back only to reveal the emperor has no clothes through a child-like misunderstanding. It’s humor that never punches down, except at Hank’s own insecurities, and that tells viewers to love and forgive themselves more often than they feel ashamed.
The entirety of this film, from the basest jokes to the deepest insights, is masterfully directed by the Daniels (last names Kwan and Scheinert); who give every element of the film, whether it’s an emotion or an object, weight and momentum. All great movies have a flow of one thing leading to the next, but Swiss Army Man feels like one thing is always slamming against the next, transferring its momentum and pushing us further along the story. There’s a carefully controlled chaos to the whole thing, like watching a stuntman flip a car off the road in an action movie. While the initial crash might be surprising, you can naturally tell from that crash how many times the car should flip in the air before landing, how far the car should skid on its roof based on how many flips it did, and where exactly the car should finally come to a stop; all knowing that despite the spectacle of it all, the stuntman is safe inside. It is cinematic causality pushed to its most visceral, a film directed as though it were a rollercoaster.
Swiss Army Man is a film like no other I’ve seen before, and that novelty along with any degree of quality should be reason enough to check it out. That Swiss Army Man happens to be an excellently directed and acted, smart, funny, warm, and affirming film at that pushes it from novelty to an absolute must see.