[Editor’s Note: With Swiss Army Man opening in New York and Los Angeles this weekend, we’re running our original Sundance review again]
Originally published on January 23, 2016
Having already gained notoriety for its world premiere screening, which started nearly 30 minutes late and led to a number of walkouts before the halfway point, Swiss Army Man is quickly becoming one of the most divisive films in the history of the Sundance Film Festival. I’ll admit to being more than a little apprehensive as I sat down this morning to open my day with this selection, but I’m very glad I decided to take that leap.
Hank (Paul Dano) has been stranded on a deserted island for an indeterminate amount of time, and is in the midst of fastening a noose around his neck when he notices a body (Daniel Radcliffe) has washed up on the beach nearby. Hank rushes over and begins to administer CPR, which only results in the corpse expelling a noxious cloud of gas from its rear. But as Hank resigns himself to his fate and returns to his rope, he notices the corpse can’t stop farting – and the flatulence is so forceful that it propels the body through the surf, which sparks an idea.
Fast forward a few hours later, and Hank is back on the mainland. “This man saved me from the brink of death,” he bellows to the sky, “when he allowed me to ride him like a jet-ski!” And in case you were wondering – yes, this sequence of events is portrayed in all its glory.
Desperate to get home but unwilling to leave his new friend, Hank lugs the body through the wilderness until he manages to find a cave to hole up in for the night. It’s fortuitous timing, too, as a storm tears through the area, and the following morning Hank discovers that his companion has been filled with water, which allows the body to serve as a makeshift drinking fountain. But as Hank quickly exhausts this resource, another miracle happens: the corpse reanimates, introducing itself as Manny.
Granted, “reanimates” may not be the best word to use here – Manny can speak, but that’s pretty much it. He also doesn’t remember anything about his old life, so Hank is forced to explain everything from defecating to masturbation to falling in love. Manny struggles with many of these concepts, but when he sees a picture of a beautiful woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) on Hank’s cell phone, his natural biological response kicks in, and Hank realizes that the corpse’s prominent erection actually seems to be functioning as a compass, pointing the way back to civilization.
Yes, Swiss Army Man is every bit as absurd and preposterous as it sounds, and both Radcliffe and Dano deserve huge amounts of praise for the fearless devotion they show to these performances. Hank’s painstaking attempts to teach Manny about the joy of being alive, while coming up with increasingly inventive ways to move Manny’s body feels like a bizarre combination of Meet Joe Black and Weekend at Bernie’s, but through the lens of a fever-induced hallucination.
Rest assured, you’ve never seen anything quite like Swiss Army Man, and it’s certainly not the type of film that everyone will enjoy. But beneath the ridiculousness of its premise lies a unique, original and altogether fascinating examination of loneliness, depression, insecurity and friendship, and music video directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (known collectively as “The Daniels”) should be commended on a remarkable feature-length debut that will no doubt be the topic of many, many contentious conversations.