Swiss Army Man is undoubtedly the strangest movie I’ve seen so far this year and it will be a hell of a feat if some other film manages to top it. This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who is aware of the film’s reputation from Sundance, where people reportedly got up and left the theater mid-film in disgust at the film’s central casting conceit of Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse. An anecdote like that makes for great publicity, but it also begs the question of what writer-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (known colloquially as “Daniels”) could possibly have been thinking to make a farting corpse movie, let alone one where the titular character is portrayed by one of the most recognizable actors in the world. Perhaps the most important question, at least from a critical standpoint, is whether it’s as horrendous as its starting gate reputation would have you believe. And the truth is… I kinda, sorta love this ridiculous movie.
The film opens on Hank (Paul Dano) about to hang himself on a deserted beach when a corpse (Radcliffe) washes up on shore. Curious, Hank abandons his attempted suicide and checks on the corpse, which is apparently the first human contact Hank has had in some time. The corpse begins farting, and Hank quickly discovers that he can use the corpse’s farts as propulsion to get him off the beach and hopefully back to civilization. Upon arriving on land again, Hank carries the corpse with him as he journeys through the forest in search of humanity, discovering new and magical ways the body can help him to survive. Whether through some strange magic or as some figment of Hank’s imagination, the corpse, named Manny, starts talking and the two form an odd friendship wherein Hank vents his feelings and frustrations while teaching Manny what it means to be alive.
As far as high-concept premises go, this is a doozy, yet it simultaneously works on a number of thematic levels that somehow don’t become muddied in their contradictory nature; perhaps because the film embraces its own absurdity to such a degree that one coherent point seems like it would be too simple. Swiss Army Man is simultaneously a bromance and a romance, a buddy comedy and a solo survival adventure, a solemn meditation on the nature of loneliness and depression… and a movie about a talking, farting corpse. The juvenile antics somehow exist in the same space as the heartfelt sincerity of its character study, and this is what’s going to either make or break the film for a lot of people.
See, this is a movie that a lot of people are going to hate, partially because the fart jokes and the character drama are going to appeal to largely mutually exclusive portions of the audience; so the average person is likely to be disappointed if their expectations of pure comedy or introspective drama aren’t met. Those same people are probably not going to like the ambiguity of the final scenes, which are a masterstroke of subverting expectations, only to subvert them again, and then subverting them once more. The final line is “What the fuck?” which is an appropriate parting blow for a film without a lot of clean answers. It’s a film with a perverse sense of humor about itself, making you think yet laughing at you for thinking as adult Harry Potter jet skis out to sea on his flatulence.
Whatever your expectations are, it’s hard to argue that the film isn’t tonally consistent, even if that tone occupies a strange space of wanting to be taken seriously while also being juvenile and off-kilter. The only thing that really doesn’t work is that the film leans a little too heavily on montage as its primary way of communicating stretches of time and the various ways Hank uses Manny’s body as a survival tool. The montages aren’t so much tedious as they are overused, though, and they do little to diminish the entertainment value of Dano and Radcliffe as a singularly unique Odd Couple. I may completely understand why some people are going to hate this movie, but I can’t deny how much fun I had appreciating it for the messed up ball of strange that it is. At the very least, there’s no other movie quite like this one, and that novelty alone is worth the price of admission, whether you end up loving or hating it. Personally, I’m firmly in the ‘love it’ camp.