Reports of mass walkouts accompanied the first screenings of "Swiss Army Man" when it premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. It immediately gained a reputation as "the farting corpse movie." That's a reductive (although not inaccurate) representation of the film.
Depicting a guileless bromance between a man and a corpse, many festival-goers weren't prepared for its mix of the fancifully macabre and the scatological. Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (jointly known as "The Daniels"), it's an undeniably strange little film that's part "Cast Away" and part "Weekend at Bernie's," filtered through the sensibilities of Michel Gondry and Terrence Malick.
Paul Dano plays Hank, a young man shipwrecked on a small, deserted island off the Pacific Northwest. As the film opens, Hank has long since given up hope and is about to hang himself. But he's distracted from his grim task when he spots a human figure washed up on shore. The body (Daniel Radcliffe continuing his trend of fascinating post-Harry Potter career choices) turns out to be a corpse, completely lifeless save for an excessive case of gas. Hank dubs him Manny.
In short amount of time Hank is soon riding Manny's body like a fart-powered jet ski (no spoilers, this happens before the opening credits even start) until they make landfall and are one step closer to home. As the title might suggest, Hank gradually discovers a plethora of Manny's unexpected talents, which include, but are not limited to, vomiting up drinking water, rigor mortis-assisted kung fu chopping action, shooting projectiles from his mouth at alarming speeds, and an erection that appears to point the way home. Strapping this "multipurpose tool guy" to his back, the unlikely pair trek through the wilderness, working together to confront whatever obstacles present themselves. Along the way, Manny and Hank have conversations about life and love and what it means to truly be alive.
All this can come across as infantile, and I'm not about to argue otherwise, but it's endearing so long as you can stomach the non-stop barrage of various bodily functions. The film is more sweet and sentimental than its premise might suggest, and that sincerity is its greatest asset. Your stomach for the material will depend on how amusing you find constant flatulence: this is after all, a movie that's basically 60 percent farts. But those farts mean something, man.
The film's making a point about hiding our true selves for fear of being uncomfortable. "My body is disgusting!" Manny laments at one point, but the film argues that those farts, poop, and boners are a sign of our humanity in all its nauseating glory. It should be noted that sound designer Andrew Twite is able to create an impressive variety of tone and pitches, ensuring that those farts never grow old. It's the type of work you'll never see honored on Oscar night, but absolutely should be.
An existential gross-out comedy, the heart of the film is the oddly touching relationship between Hank and Manny. The chemistry between Dano and Radcliffe is disarmingly sweet. Radcliffe wrings unexpected life out of playing a corpse; whether gliding through the ocean propelled by farts, or discovering the joys of public transportation, you never doubt his commitment for a second. Despite playing a dead guy, it's the showier of the two roles, and the young actor makes the most of it. Meanwhile Dano's earnestness allows us to empathize with a man who's obviously broken.
The pair are spurred on their journey home by a desire to connect with a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) glimpsed in a photo on a dying cell phone. In contrast to most stories that ask audiences to root for a loveable weirdo pining after a woman, the Daniels don't let us ignore how creepy the situation actually is. Hank seems to have a genuine mental instability, but Dano's earnestness keeps him from coming across entirely like a dangerous psychopath.
The chant-heavy score (from Manchester Orchestra's Andy Hull and Robert McDowell) suits things perfectly, alternating between the melancholy and the ecstatic, and Hank and Manny occasionally join in to sing along with the melodies.
One of the weirdest films released this year (and that's saying a lot since the film is on the heels of "The Lobster"), "Swiss Army Man" occasionally goes overboard with fairy tale whimsy, but anytime the film threatens to turn maudlin, Manny lets another one rip. The plot proceeds toward a genuinely unexpected ending, which in fairness is probably a little darker than the film that precedes it can support. But even that unexpected divergence seems appropriate for an unexpectedly remarkable film that bucks expectation at every turn.