Paul Dano plays a man named Hank, who is stranded on an island of the coast of the Northwestern United States. He is alone and starving, and has given up all hope of rescue, so he has decided to end his own life. But shortly before he is about to hang himself, he sees someone washed up the beach. Investigating, he finds what appears to be a dead man (Daniel Radcliffe), but who is in fact only mostly dead. After using the body as a speed boat to make it back to the mainland (yes, bear with me), and discovering that the corpse can talk, Hank names him Manny and decides to use his unusual abilities to help him get back to civilization. But as Manny becomes more and more self-aware, he and Hank slowly start to become friends.
I understand if the premise of this film is just too bizarre for some people, but don’t close your browser yet. Following the film’s screening at Cannes, it quickly became known on the internet as the ‘farting corpse movie’ or the ‘Daniel Radcliffe penis compass film’; I have described to friends as ‘like Castaway, except instead of Tom Hanks and a volleyball its Paul Dano and a partially-dead body’. However, if you can get past the bizarre premise then you’ll find that Swiss Army Man is one of the funniest and most unique films released in quite some time, and even manages to be strangely poignant at points.
In terms of genre, Swiss Army Man is a strange mixture of crude (but incredibly well-written) body humor and a touching drama. The former stems from the absurd abilities Manny seems to possess as a corpse, from the aforementioned penis which points north and farts so powerful they propel him like a motor boat, to Hank using his lungs as a storage device for rain water and chopping logs with Manny’s super strength. The absurdist tendencies are a bit reminiscent of films like Weekend at Bernie’s and The Lobster (another excellent indie film released recently), but unlike the latter the film never quite lapses into black comedy, In addition, the film is also a drama, showing the developing friendship between the shipwreck survivor and a talking corpse. I must admit, I never thought a budding friendship with a dead body could be so emotional, but Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert have proved me wrong. Best of all, they resisted the temptation to make the movie overly schmaltzy, and the film manages to strike an excellent balance between the drama and the absurdist comedy, never losing its whimsical and surreal tone.
All of this is anchored by both Dano and Radcliffe’s phenomenal acting. Never, ever did I think I would be so impressed by an actor playing a dead body, but Radcliffe has come a very long way from the small child in the early Harry Potter movies. Plus, we finally have a movie where Paul Dano plays a character I don’t hate and/or pity!
Originality is rare in media in general, but particularly in contemporary cinema. So when it pops up, we need to take full advantage of it. This is why I recommend you see Swiss Army Man, because even if you’re not a fan of absurdist humor, you will never see a movie quite like this.