For all 2016’s talk of originality, or lack thereof, in current film, one element of the conversation has not been high profile enough – the fact that original does not necessarily equate with good. There’s a reason that certain stories are told time and again, and the very divided reception to Swiss Army Man certainly shows that not everyone was clamouring for a tale of a possibly insane man being guided back to civilisation by a reanimated corpse’s magic boner. Thankfully, there is plenty more to Swiss Army Man than that central conceit (though if a GPS erection doesn’t strike you as at all funny, then the film as a whole is not for you), making sure that 2016’s most un-categorisable film is also a very worthwhile trip to the cinema.
Paul Dano plays Hank, a man trapped on a desert island, with nothing left to do but kill himself. Rescue clearly isn’t coming, and nothing awaits him aside from an isolated death by starvation. Just as he’s about to step off his makeshift suicide stool, a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washes to shore. Filled with the gases of decomposition, this corpse’s farts prove lifesaving in a couple of ways. First off, it seems that hanging yourself to a soundtrack of flatulence is impossible, forcing Hank to untie himself, and secondly, the corpse’s farts prove so powerful that, once launched out to sea, the body can be used as a makeshift jet-ski that Hank can ride back to mainland America.
With farting so integral to the early stages of the plot, Swiss Army Man is guaranteed to turn plenty of people off right from the start, but writing/directing partnership Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert actually drop this much-talked-about element quite swiftly. Granted, it is replaced by the equally silly penis compass and a series of mournful covers of ‘Cotton Eye Joe’, but to accuse Swiss Army Man of being a one-trick film would be unfair. Once the corpse, given the name Manny by Hank, starts talking, there’s a shift into more sharply surreal territory, although the various abilities of Manny’s miraculous body make sure that the goofiness remains intact throughout.
Not all of the jokes land, by a long shot, but those that do are incredibly funny, and Dano and Radcliffe make for a great double act. Paul Dano’s excellence is hardly a surprise, but he’s outshone by Daniel Radcliffe in a revelatory comic performance. We’ve seen him be funny in the sixth Harry Potter movie, with his confidence-potion strut the highlight of that instalment, but nothing to suggest this level of proficiency at physical comedy.
To convince so utterly as a corpse that is only very slowly coming back to life takes immense skill at deftly controlling the body and face, and to combine that with humour and even occasional effective pathos is a huge achievement. Radcliffe has made consistently interesting career choices since Harry Potter ended, but this is easily his best, and one of the most remarkable performances of the entire year.
Manny and Hank’s budding friendship is handled very well by the Daniels’ (as they credit themselves) script. Manny’s resurrection doesn’t come with any memories, so Hank has to explain everything from why people throw away their rubbish to what true love is. Societal rules seem absurd to Manny, whose only frame of reference is surviving in the woods with Hank, and his dismissal of them help Hank overcome some deep self-repression. These moments could feel cheesy, and perhaps if they were played entirely straight they might feel unearned, but come with enough laughs that they slot right in the wider tone.
Along with their general quest to get home, Hank and Manny are also striving to get Manny’s memories back, with their only clue being a picture of Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) on Manny’s phone. To spark these memories, Hank tries to create memory-triggering romantic scenarios, funny and touching in equal measure, and always revealing plenty about the inner lives of both characters. As they grow closer, they build a ramshackle recreation of normal life together, complete with house, car, and bus rides in a series of joyous montages bolstered by a very fun score. As they get nearer and nearer to society, the pace slows somewhat, and the ending will prove divisive even amongst people who are fully sold on the rest of the film.
The final few moments threaten to sink the film, and I’m still not sure whether they actually did or not. An ending that will undoubtedly provoke discussion and reflection, it may not serve the story perfectly, but does act as a neat summation of Swiss Army Man as a whole. Deeply odd, unapologetic in its vision, and punctuated by some of the most ambitious fart jokes you’ll ever see.