Had Swiss Army Man been a short film, it might have been a brilliant, semi-serious lark about a young man stranded on a barren Pacific island and in a life that’s apparently cut off from the rest of humanity.
But at one hour and 35 minutes, Swiss Army Man plays like Samuel Beckett Lite, a wobbly, repetitive two-actor journey into the absurd.
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
The movie opens on a beach, where the aforementioned young man — bearded and obviously desperate — is about to hang himself. Almost too late, the man notices that a body has washed ashore. Could a companion have arrived? Is salvation at hand?
Directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who refer to themselves in the credits as “the Daniels,” Swiss Army Man stars Paul Dano as Hank, a marooned man who develops a relationship with that beached body which, as if part of some cosmic joke, turns out to be a corpse.
The corpse — one Manny by name and played by Daniel Radcliffe — suffers from rampant flatulence, a condition the Daniels never lets us forget. More about that later.
Radcliffe’s corpse of a character eventually begins talking. Could Hank be hallucinating? Maybe, but it doesn’t really matter because Manny raises questions about the meaning of life in face of death’s inevitability and about Hank’s inability to connect with others. Hank explains life to Manny, but he’s really opening a window into his own parched soul.
As the Swiss Army man of the title, Manny proves an all-purpose pal whose expulsions of gas propel Hank off the island and land him in the woods off the California coast.
In the forest, Hank carries Manny on his back, moves his limbs, keeps his head from flopping over, and teaches his new best friend the rudiments of living. He also helps Manny remember the life that death evidently has obliterated from his brain.
Dano and Radcliffe are game for an insistently strange movie that refuses to dot every “i” and cross every “t” or even to acknowledge that such coherence might be a worthwhile endeavor.
Worse yet, Dano and Radcliffe’s mildly amusing duet never quite finds the emotional groove for which the Daniels seem to be searching. Brief flashbacks tell us that Hank has trouble reaching for the object of his desire, symbolized by a woman he sees on a bus ride.
I suppose there’s a point beyond gimmickry to this man/corpse relationship. Inhibited to the point of inertia, Hank has so much difficulty choosing life, he’s only able to reach out to a corpse.
I wasn’t bored by The Swiss Army Man, but I wasn’t motivated to give much thought to the questions the movie raises, either. Seems like I encountered them in dorm rooms eons ago.
And about those farts. They serve a higher purpose, acknowledging the unnecessary shame that’s too often associated with natural bodily functions. Hopefully, though, you won’t be sitting next to someone who takes this injunction seriously, and let’s loose in the theater.