Before the opening credits grace our screens in Swiss Army Man it should be abundantly clear that you’ve never seen anything quite like this movie. A surreal, deranged thinkpiece on the meaning of life and love, told through a relationship between a suicidal loner and a talking, flatulent corpse, this is a film that really earns the superlative “unique”.
This is the feature length debut of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, both of whom shared writing and directing duties. What they have concocted is utterly bizarre, compelling, beautiful and funny. Paul Dano plays Hank, a young man stranded on an island in the Pacific and on the verge of a colossal decision about his immediate future. He stumbles across a corpse that has washed up on the shore, and it isn’t long before we find out that Manny, played by Daniel Radcliffe, is imbued with powers that prove crucial to Hank’s survival in the wilderness. The pair then embark on a philosophical journey in search of love and human connection.
Where Swiss Army Man immediately succeeds is the connection between Manny and Hank. Dano and Radcliffe give incredible performances, eschewing all manner of basic human decencies for the sake of their art, and their onscreen chemistry is the beating heart of the movie. Over the course of their voyage they question what it is to love, to laugh, to fear and to hate. The pair are deeply committed to the absurd premise, so much so that it’s easy to overlook the underlying flaws in the story.
This is a film that will divide audiences, not least for the sheer amount of fart gags and grossly inventive ways that Hank put’s his new buddy to use, but there’s a tender naivety to Manny and how Hank cares for him that helps brush all of that aside. Kwan and Scheinert play to the strengths of a meagre budget and the scenes where the pair watch “movies” together or re-enact mundane daily chores with elaborate constructions made from collected garbage are among the most heartfelt that you’ll see in any film this year. They knowingly serve a purpose in keeping the audience guessing as to whether or not this is all really happening or if everything is just a product of Hank’s troubled mind, though there is an over-reliance on them in the latter stages of the movie to advance the plot.
By the time the journey reaches a close you’ll either be invested enough to go along with a tonal shift into more straightforward psychological territory or the repetitive nature of the dreamy montage sequences will have worn thin; either way there’s no denying that Swiss Army Man is a one of a kind achievement.
For those that are willing to make the leap that Kwan and Scheinert are aiming for, the pay-off is a resonating and poignant conclusion to a drama that at its best celebrates the meaning of friendship in a way that is wholly original and unique. Despite its faults, Swiss Army Man is inspired and daring filmmaking, a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon sprung from the page and given life by two wonderful performances and one of the most original scripts in a long long time.