Sundance Film Review: ‘Swiss Army Man’

Paul Dano discovers all the tools he needs for survival in Daniel Radcliffe's multi-purpose corpse in this wildly weird Sundance comedy.

Sundance U.S. Dramatic Competition 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Daniel Radcliffe plays a flatulent corpse whom a wilderness-stranded Paul Dano rides to safety in “Swiss Army Man,” an off-the-wall absurdist existential comedy from viral- and music-video oddballs the Daniels (AKA Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan). On one hand the most singularly unique competition title to debut at Sundance in ages, while on the other, a project still in drastic need of development (despite a tour through five different Sundance Institute labs, including one for mixing all those fart effects in Dolby Atmos), this movie wears its weirdness as a badge of honor — as well it should.

Imagine “Cast Away” meets “Weekend at Bernie’s,” as directed by Michel Gondry. The result represents not just independent cinema, but an emerging strand of what might be called “indifferent cinema” — wildly iconoclastic personal visions whose creators don’t seem especially concerned about the ultimate commercial fate of their movies (beyond whatever assurances casting Harry Potter as a human multi-purpose utility tool no doubt provides), so long as they ultimately reach those kindred spirits who groove to the same strange worldview.

In other words, if half an hour of fart jokes, poop gags and run-on masturbation talk inspired a goodly chunk of Sundance’s world premiere audience to walk out early, the Daniels don’t much care. Those topics are not only funny (they think), but indicative of how square normal folks are to keep them out of the public arena. “Everybody poops,” as Taro Gomi’s Japanese children’s book classic informs us, and there’s no reason to feel ashamed about those other behaviors either (they think). “Swiss Army Man” not only exists in a space beyond such judgment, but leverages what’s laugh-worthy about such bodily functions in service of a greater life lesson — namely, that it’s full of reasons for living.

The film never does tell us why Dano’s character, Hank, ended up stuck on a tiny island somewhere in the Pacific. The poor guy’s been gone so long that he’s grown a beard (which, for a babyface like Dano, must have taken about two or three years) and, out of sheer boredom, decided to end his life. Hank is actually in the process of hanging himself when a random corpse (Radcliffe’s) washes ashore. That would be “Manny,” for lack of a better name, and he makes his presence known via a gaseous eruption — of which there will be at least 45 other distinct examples, some so long and powerful that Hank can climb aboard the deflating body and ride it like a magic dolphin or jet ski back to the mainland (a chance for titillated tweeners to admire Harry Potter’s hairy bottom).

Naturally, an idea like that would be right at home late night on Adult Swim. To encounter it as the opening salvo in a professional-grade motion picture is stunning, to say the least, and “Swiss Army Man” does its best to deliver on that level of gonzo foolishness for the rest of its 96-minute running time — too much of which drags, although there is a nifty sequence about an hour in when Hank discovers Manny’s other “powers,” which include “special compass,” karate-chop action and handy fresh-water canteen storage. Back on land, Hank is no less lost, dragging Manny’s corpse through bear-infested woods (judging by the fact that droppings are nearly always underfoot) back toward civilization.

Working almost at counter-purposes to the bawdy comedy is an ambiguous backstory about a girl named Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the memory of whom is preserved on a nearly-dead cell phone. Speaking of nearly dead, Manny isn’t quite as far gone as we might have assumed. After spending the night in a dank cave, he miraculously develops the ability to talk, coming to in an amnesiac stupor that requires Hank to re-explain all the joys, mysteries and disappointments of life to his otherwise paralyzed new friend. Considering that both are potential suicide cases, there’s a certain poignancy to these conversations — though their exchanges would surely resonate more profoundly if they were not so single-mindedly focused on matters of sex and effluvia.

Never mind. For those willing to push past all that surface scatology and style (this is the same talented duo who made DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s impressive “Turn Down for What” music video, after all), the Daniels do have something meaningful to impart. In a dazzling sequence that suggests the bad-romance-wiping effects of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” this time run in reverse, Hank tries to jog Manny’s memories of love. He even goes as far as to pillage other people’s garbage, tossed out onto the forest floor, in order to build a makeshift bus and disguise himself as Sarah, complete with yellow sundress and Raggedy Ann yarn-wig.

Moments like this benefit enormously from Manchester Orchestra members Andy Hull and Robert McDowell’s oddly sung score, the playful music equivalent of those hand-drawn doodles that indie and Fox Searchlight movies have been serving up for the past decade or so. Virtually each track begins with either Dano or Radcliffe rapping quietly to himself, before building into a more resonant and melancholy track.

At times deliriously dynamic, at others patience-grating in the extreme, the constantly inventive film fires off ideas that are as exhilarating as anything American audiences will see all year, only to lag in long swells on either side. Without saying too much, clearly, some (or all) of what we’re seeing is taking place exclusively inside Hank’s head. Early on, still holding the broken noose, Hank confides that just before dying, he’d expected his life to flash before his eyes. To some extent, the entire film functions in that way, forcing him not only to reevaluate his own choices, but also to make the case for life to his already-dead companion. And what good is a Swiss Army Man, after all, if not to give a desperate outsider the tools he needs for survival?

Sundance Film Review: ‘Swiss Army Man’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 22, 2016. Running time: 95 MIN.

  • Production: Produced by Jonathan Wang, Lawrence Inglee, Miranda Bailey, Amanda Marshall, Eyal Rimmon, Lauren Mann. Executive producers, Gideon Tadmor, William Olsson, Jim Kaufman.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Daniel Scheinert, Daniel Kwan. Camera (color), Larkin Seiple; editor, Matthew Hannam; music, Andy Hull, Robert Mcdowell; production designer, Jason Kisarday; art director, David Duarte; set decorator, Kelsi Ephraim; sound (Dolby Atmos), Stephen Nelson; sound designer, Andrew Twite; supervising sound editor/farts, Brent Kiser; re-recording mixer, Beau Borders, Kiser; visual effects coordinator, Kyle Gilbertson; visual effects supervisor, Eduardo ‘Alvin’ Cruz; visual effects, Method Studios; special effects supervisor, Larz Anderson; makeup effects, Jason Hamer; stunt coordinators, Jessica Harbeck, Timothy Eulich; assistant director, Jesse Fleece;
  • With: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Antonia Ribero, Timothy Eulich, Richard Gross, Marika Casteel, Andy Hull, Aaron Marshall, Shane Caruth.