My first Swiss Army Knife was crimson colored and already missing the toothpick. These things are either midnight QVC showpieces or elementary flirtations with danger and utility--passably good at widdling sticks into spears and not much else. Perhaps one would suffice in a dire circumstance, but TV shows like Naked and Afraid have demonstrated the value of a simple machete in survival situations. Swiss Army Man trades on the cinematic junk of wilderness survival movies. The setting either molds or swallows up its players, but such movies succeed on the spirit and imagination of their creators. Like a kid with a Swiss Army Knife, the tool as a portal is greater than the sum of its cheap parts. Swiss Army Man also reflects how much we’ve been raised on the pop culture junk that litters our earth much as our minds and souls. In the world of Swiss Army Man, the forest floor is decorated with a constant carpet of waste, 20 years of Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit Editions, food wrappers, plastic bottles, and one talisman bag of cheese puffs.
The film’s titular body Manny (a spectacular Daniel Radcliffe) has the supernatural abilities of his title, but has neither a memory of his pre-corpse life nor humanity at all. Meanwhile, Hank Jones (Paul Dano) is buried in the memories of his own life and lacks the courage to pursue love and friendship. He can’t gather the courage to talk to the winsome girl on the bus (Mary-Elizabeth Winstead), though the secret photo he snapped of her is prominently displayed on his smartphone. It is this photo that churns the friendship between Hank, the man-child and Manny the corpse-man.
Hank discovers Manny just as he is about to end his own life on a deserted island somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. He soon discovers that, while the body appears dead, it contains an unfathomable amount of flatulence. So powerful is the corpse’s rear-engine that Hank is able to ride it/him across the water like a bare-assed jet ski, before capsizing and washing ashore on the mainland. In case you didn’t know what you were getting into, Swiss Army Man drops its trousers early. If you keep watching, it gets even better.
Manny’s transition from farting corpse to wood-chopping, fire-lighting, water-spewing Swiss Army Man takes place mostly in montages. Even though he is returning to life through the shared conversations with Hank, Manny is the one saving Hank’s hide. Chalk it up to the sparks between them--bromance, necro-mance, or otherwise. Manny is a like a scatological marriage of Pete’s Dragon Elliott, Zooey Deschanel’s Summer (500 Days of Summer) and a dash of Encino Man. At times, Hank is very easily carrying Manny’s farting corpse through the forest and other times really struggling with it. Dano apparently preferred to carry Radcliffe’s actual weight instead of a dummy. So the otherwise brute strength of a survivalist flick is realized in Hank’s very real struggle with a limp body. Likewise, Radcliffe wanted to do as much stunt work as possible, so the magical realism is grounded in very physical acting.
Written and directed by first-time film dabblers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Swiss Army Man is fresh and thoroughly motivated. Daniels, as the team is known, garnered fame for their music video for Lil John & DJ Snake’s “Turn Down for What” plus many other short compositions. Swiss Army Man sometimes feels like series of individual explorations that are self-contained enough to be a series of music videos starring the same characters. The soundtrack was composed by Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull and Robert McDowell (both of whom appear in cameo roles). The score evolves from Hank’s frequent choral renditions of songs like “Cotton-Eyed Joe”, where his voice is doubled and looped into a mesmerizing chorus that often touches the life-affirming buzz of a Polyphonic Spree song. Hank’s songs take on a supernatural quality and reveal one of Hank’s only coping mechanisms for his lonely life. Additionally, they reinforce the film’s theme of scatological alchemy, spinning fart’s and Eurotrash music into gold.
Swiss Army Man, for all its weirdness, seeks to prick the very real emotional center of existential crisis. It does so by shuffling performances of wilderness ritual with juvenile sensibility and arrested development. When the two leads are trapped in a valley, with little to do but re-create the bus-stop interaction that initially motivated Hank’s suicide, the movie channels Michel Gondry and shines because of its commitment to weirdness and not in spite of it. Swiss Army Man uses the beats of rom-com and survival movies to jostle an audience laboring under the delusions of pop-culture truths. Witness a triumphant film that throws a lot of paint on the canvas and beams proudly at its mess. Swiss Army Man is a bit aimless, but packed with committed performances and a weird beating heart.