I seldom feel like I’m running out of words, but we’re at the end of a month where I’ve reviewed one movie about hotel guests turning into animals and another one about necrophilia and cannibalism in high fashion, and I think I might be hitting the bottom of the well when it comes to describing films that are fundamentally bizarre. This is happening just in time for Swiss Army Man, a film in which one of the main characters is a farting corpse. The blockbuster sequels and remakes may be dominating the multiplexes like in every June, but there are original stories to see if you look for them, and this one may well be the best one right now.
The movie opens with shipwreck survivor Hank Thompson (Paul Dano) marooned on a desert island and about to commit suicide when he spots a dead man (Daniel Radcliffe) washed up on the beach. The corpse, whom Hank names Manny, immediately lets one rip as soon as Hank comes up to him. Indeed, Manny is expelling gas so viciously that Hank puts him in the water and rides him like a Jet-Ski away from the island to another place. As Hank carries the body through a densely forested area searching for his way home, he starts talking to Manny to maintain his sanity. Manny starts talking back to him, which rather calls the whole enterprise into question.
This is the brainchild of the filmmaking team of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who bill themselves as The Daniels and are making their feature debut following a distinguished career making music videos. Manny appears to have forgotten what it’s like to be alive, so while he asks Hank what fear and love and sexual desire feel like, Hank finds a direction in his own solitary, disconnected life. If that sounds like so much uplifting pablum, the constant farting noises and the violent slapstick humor deflate any solemnity this movie might have, as Hank rudely uses the corpse’s magical powers as a compass, a spring of potable water, and an instrument to chop heavy logs and fire a grappling hook. Dano and Radcliffe wind up making a neat duo, with the latter turning in a performance that’s an astonishing piece of physical comedy and the former skillfully reacting to the fact that a dead guy is now singing his favorite songs to him and asking him what it’s like to masturbate.
Yet The Daniels also conjure up some great flights of lyricism to counteract all the scatological humor, as when Hank tries to jog Manny’s memories of life by making a full-scale replica of a city bus, complete with fake passengers and driver, out of leaves and branches and trash he finds in the forest. The cracked poetry of these and other moments here give life to Hank falling in love, in an eccentric platonic manner, with the dead guy who seems to have so much wisdom about Hank’s difficult relationships with his dead mother and demanding father (Richard Gross) and his fear of talking to a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) whom he sees occasionally on the bus. The scenes where Hank dresses up as her and pretends to be her so Manny can learn how to flirt are filmed as tenderly as any romantic comedy Maybe the strands of this fable fray a bit near the end as The Daniels try to come up with a properly magical-realist ending, but it’s not a serious enough issue to compromise this movie’s vision of a man saved from his own solipsistic existence by the least likely source.
This film winds up being much like The Lobster, a statement on the importance of reaching out amid the essential loneliness of the human condition that’s cut with surreal slapstick. The main difference is, Swiss Army Man is much warmer to the touch, which (along with its wild natural setting and its air of childlike wonder) makes it more like a dirtier, more grown-up version of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. Somehow, it all works. I’m not all that sure how that happens, but I don’t mind saying I’m in awe.
[box_info]Swiss Army Man
Starring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. Written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Rated R.[/box_info]