Many movies aim low with a good fart joke, but few ever make it its pathos. How can the expelling of intestinal gases through one's anus feel so satisfying? (For a movie audience, we mean.) Why, you make it part of a character's arc as they wrestle with every possible human experience, including love, joy, regret, and friendship. Of course.
With feet planted in a narrow subspace between reality and surreality, Swiss Army Man is the unholy, chaotic cocktail that mixes Cast Away, Tommy Boy, and Weekend at Bernie's. Equally outrageous and absurd, Swiss Army Man is the movie about a talking dead body you need to watch on Netflix before it leaves on January 29.
Written and directed by The Daniels, a duo comprised of music video directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, Swiss Army Man is a 2016 comedy that people walked out of during its premiere at Sundance. It got solid reviews from those who stuck around. (71% on Rotten Tomatoes, if you're curious.)
The directors told Inverse back in 2016 that it was part of an "existential joke" to not tell the Sundance crowd what the movie was about. “The fun thing about [the premiere] was that we didn’t tell anyone what the movie was about, on purpose, so we could get that moment, to see what the spectrum of reactions would be,” Kwan said. “We wanted to create something that just did not belong anywhere, especially not Sundance.”
The movie stars Paul Dano (soon to play Riddler in Matt Reeves' The Batman) as Hank Thompson, a suicidal castaway on a remote island. When Hank finds a dead, weather-beaten body (Daniel Radcliffe) washed ashore, he uses the body's impossibly endless flatulence to ride back to land.
Fun fact: The farting-across-the-ocean scene was filmed with a combination of boogie boards, stuntmen, dummies (removed with VFX), and at least one take of Dano actually riding on Radcliffe. “Our usual plan for visual effects is to shoot practical things and then remove wires,” Scheinert told Inverse. “The opening sequence is real people getting dragged across the ocean, and we just had to remove stuff ... There was one take of the whole scene with actual Paul riding actual Daniel.”
Feeling indebted to the corpse, Hank brings the body with him only to discover its many action figure talents, like karate chopping wood to shooting squirrels like a hunting rifle. When the corpse crackles back to "life" to talk, he reveals his name to be Manny, and the two strike up an unlikely friendship as Hank searches for a way back to civilization. Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars in a "minor" role, though her character is the sole motivation for these lost bodies to get moving.
Uproariously funny and relentlessly gross, Swiss Army Man works by virtue of its committed leads. Paul Dano demonstrates his wide range already proven in films like There Will Be Blood, Love & Mercy, and the Showtime series Escape at Dannemora (we are really in for a treat in The Batman). Here, Dano's cherubic face is an open canvas, revealing a pathetic nobody barely getting by. As Swiss Army Man progresses, you begin to think less of Hank, which is a brave direction from the usual loner protagonists with hearts of gold. Hank is a creep! And Swiss Army Man embraces that in unflattering, gaseous light.
Daniel Radcliffe makes a theoretically easy job as a corpse look like a masterclass. In Radcliffe's breathless delivery as Manny, there's a hint of sweet earnestness that you too begin to reevaluate and re-prioritize what you consider "important" in your own waking life.
Ten or eleven months of a pandemic (I've lost count), I'm spiritually exhausted at any attempt to define the vague genre of "quarantine movie." Categorically, Swiss Army Man is it. Lonely people. Isolated surroundings. Yearning for something or someone beyond it all. It's all there. But I'd rather look at Swiss Army Man outside those terms.
It's a tender movie about friendship and acceptance, even if it is friendship and acceptance with oneself. The real corpse isn't Manny, it's Hank. Hank is the walking dead, paralyzed by his own insecurities. I personally theorize his suicidal tendencies encouraged him to surrender to the wilderness, à la Into the Wild. (Minor spoilers: Observe how close to civilization Hank and Manny actually are throughout the movie.) It's only through the insistence of "Manny" — more accurately an inner voice kicking and screaming for Hank to find help — does Hank ever make it out at all.
Swiss Army Man is streaming on Netflix until January 29.