Hank (Paul Dano), a suicidal man stranded on a beach, finds a washed-up corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) that is not only somehow alive, but has incredible abilities. Dubbing it Manny, Hank sets off home.
In this media-saturated world, where we’re bombarded 24/7 by images that are usually inspired by or based on or downright ripped-off from other sources, originality has become an endangered species. Everything’s been done, it seems. Played out. It’s increasingly rare for a movie to show you something you haven’t seen before. That’s not a problem for Swiss Army Man.
There were reports of numerous walkouts at Sundance. More fool those who bailed.
Two minutes in, and Paul Dano’s Hank is thwarted in his attempts to commit suicide on a beach by the sudden appearance of a corpse, played by Daniel Radcliffe. Five minutes in, and Hank is riding the same corpse across the ocean like a Jet Ski, powered by the strength of the poor dead bastard’s powerful farts. Fifteen minutes in, that corpse — now called Manny — is somehow talking and jerkily moving. Thirty minutes in, it’s using its inexplicable erection as a GPS (“Manny, I think your penis is guiding us home!”). Later still, Hank and Manny are recreating Jurassic Park in an attempt to… Well, you’ll see.
The point is, Swiss Army Man so frequently presents you with things you genuinely haven’t seen before that it almost becomes a bit dizzying. Unless you see a farting corpse cutting trees with its arms every day, in which case good luck to you. But it’s not just about the images that first-time directors Scheinert and Kwan — known as The Daniels — deliver here. This is a gloriously inventive fable about humanity, faith, guilt and much more that is by turns hilarious, moving, juvenile and deeply profound. There were reports of numerous walkouts during the film’s debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — perhaps they were expecting something akin to Weekend At Bernie’s III. More fool those who bailed, because they missed one of the year’s best films.
Since he last battled You-Know-Who, Radcliffe has been consistently surprising. As Manny he’s astonishing.
The Daniels’ masterstroke here is to couch Manny’s ‘rebirth’ as an accelerated journey through the human life cycle. So he starts off as a man-child, naive, trusting, thirsty for knowledge, then rapidly ratchets through a new puberty (hence the hyperactive penis) and adulthood, which brings with it an awareness of sex, love, death and mortality, and all the darkening thoughts those bring. All the while, his bond with the timid, introspective Hank evolves from sweet to vaguely sinister.
A true two-hander, all the visual and aural invention from the Daniels would count for nothing if their leads didn’t deliver. Thankfully, they do. Dano is dependably excellent as Hank, although this kind of tortured outsider is not exactly a departure. Radcliffe — the third Daniel — is the revelation here. Since he last battled You-Know-Who in You-Know-What and headed off to forge his own path, he’s been a consistently interesting, surprising and committed actor, but as Manny he’s truly astonishing.
Technically, it’s a performance that requires incredible control of his body and face, not to mention an utter lack of vanity or ego, as Manny is contorted into all kinds of unflattering poses, thrust face down into the dirt and heaped with indignities. But where Radcliffe really triumphs is in his delicate evocation of Manny’s ever-changing moods, from childlike whimsy to adolescent anger. It’s an extraordinary turn, and one that deserves to be remembered when Oscar season comes round. If anything, the choice of clip for any awards show broadcast should be interesting. Will they go with the farting, or the hard-on?
The premise sounds like an off-Broadway play gone wrong. Far from it — this is extraordinary, vital, and fuelled by great performances.