Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano in ‘Swiss Army Man’ (Sundance Film Festival)
The Eccles Theatre, Sundance’s premiere screening venue, was packed to the gills on Friday afternoon, with thousands of curious moviegoers intrigued by the brief synopsis of the new film Swiss Army Man. In retrospect, simply stating that Daniel Radcliffe plays a dead body in directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s surreal first feature is vastly underselling the film’s fantastical blend of heart and fart.
Within the first few minutes of Swiss Army Man, a suicidal young man named Hank (Paul Dano) spots the corpse on the beach of a deserted island, discovers the body’s knack for ultra-powerful flatulence, and begins to ride the blue-lipped boy wizard like a Jet Ski across the Pacific in a desperate search for human civilization.
It’s a startling introduction, and some audience members didn’t stay much past the sequence; the first half-hour of the screening featured a noticeable number of walkouts, a rare occurrence for an early Sundance premiere. But those who did stay were treated to an endlessly inventive film that dares to push boundaries and rewards deeper consideration — even if the film was, as the directors admitted during a post-screening Q&A, initially inspired by a fart joke.
Here are some thoughts on Swiss Army Man, which is easily the most divisive film to premiere so far at this year’s fest.
What was real? Radcliffe isn’t dead — or at least inanimate, for long. Hank lugs him around after they arrive on a second desert island, and out of sheer loneliness, begins to talk with him — à la Tom Hanks and Wilson in Castaway. But unlike the blood-smeared volleyball, the body begins to talk back. He introduces himself as Manny, but beyond his name, he doesn’t remember much about his past life. But he’s got a very willing teacher in Hank, who spends much of the film explaining everything from vocabulary words to how to interact with people on a bus (especially women).
Kwan and Scheinert told the audience that, as they worked on the film, they had simple story in mind: A suicidal man has to convince a dead body that life is worth living. And as Hank does so, Manny begins to become more physically capable and mentally aware, and once the dead guy re-learns about love and sex, his erection begins acting like a compass needle for his and Hank’s journey.
No rules are ever really established for viewers, and so through most of the film, it’s hard to tell whether the supernatural elements of the film are “real” or a product of Hank’s imagination. Did he actually ride a fart-powered corpse Jet Ski? Was he actually talking — and getting responses from — a dead guy? Or were the lessons he was imparting just his way of reckoning with his many regrets and flaws? Is reality what we make of it?
A brilliant bromance: Whether Manny is actually a sweet, naïve zombie, or only animated in Hank’s mind, Dano and Radcliffe have incredibly easy chemistry from the start. Dano’s early one-way conversations with the lifeless body somehow don’t feel stilted or awkward, and later, the two characters develop a relationship that is a mix of father-son and, as time goes on, homoerotic. And it’s not even subtext, either; as Hank teaches Manny about love, he dresses up like a woman and the two simulate dates that grow more and more intimate.
Dano and Radcliffe play characters that truly need each other, and that comes through loud and clear on screen.
Now these are practical effects: The Daniels, as Kwan and Scheinert call their partnership, became famous thanks to their highly inventive music videos (including DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What”) that feature characters performing gravity-defying stunts and contortions. They took it to another level here, as Radcliffe and several dummies that looked just like him were flipped, twisted, and shaken for 95 minutes.
The title Swiss Army Man is derived from Manny’s abundance of uses; he spits fountains of clean water, can create fire with his farts, shoots bullets from his mouth, and chops wood with real authority. During the Q&A, the Daniels said that just about everything seen on screen was actually done on location, using in-camera tricks. Just imagine Daniel Radcliffe spewing out water and riding on Paul Dano’s back; it’s even funnier than you’re picturing.
The film is a revelation of production design, too. Hank’s only supplies come from a pit of garbage, and he has to make use of everything he has as he designs what ultimately becomes a little village for himself and Manny. It reminded me of what the Lost Boys created in Steven Spielberg’s Hook, but far creepier.
Love hurts… or does it? While Dano and Radcliffe occupy about 95 percent of the screen time here, there are glimpses of a mysterious woman played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Without divulging her role or why she matters, I’d suggest that she represents the power of loving something, even if it’s a one-way affair.