At one point, we’ve all felt alone, lost, frightened, insignificant, and stranded on a hypothetical deserted island waiting for a rescue that will never come. When all hope is lost, perhaps a dead body washes ashore to at first provide a sturdier noose but upon further investigation, said lifeless body will end up saving a life, bringing you back from the hopelessness to a place where you’re appreciated, loved, and understood. A place where you can fart in front of a best friend or strangers and be ok with yourself still. All of this lays the groundwork for the collective known simply as Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) in their respective directorial debut that they both also served as co-writers together on.
That premise alone will be enough to grab your attention. Once the film opens on a man named Hank (Paul Dano) ready to take his own life on a beach when a dead body, later known as Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) appears out of nowhere with enough flatulence to power a small yacht becomes a vessel to save Hank’s life. And by save Hank’s life, I mean, Hank gets the bright idea to strap on Manny’s back and use his gas as an engine to propel his escape from the deserted island and make it back home to civilization. Becoming totally invested in where this film would go post gassed up sea adventure is instantaneous. Hank has barely clung to life and now a dead body slowly reanimating itself will teach him how to become human again.
From there, this absurd duo land on another island and begin to make their trek through the woods to safety. For 97 minutes, strange and odd doesn’t even begin to describe the journey Daniels takes their characters on. As much as it is about getting help and finding home, Swiss Army Man will unexpectedly create a warm sensation within as the two, a living person and a reanimated corpse, learn more about life, and living it to the fullest surrounded by trash and garbage that would eventually become a safe haven for the two friends.
Like the title suggests, Manny is a Swiss Army knife – used by Hank to distill drinking water (the thought of it will elicit a gag reflex knowing where the water is coming from), creating shelter, starting fires, a catapult and grappling hook, and countless other devices to aid a rescue but most importantly Manny’s best tool is giving Hank hope that he’s a good person and that he matters though completely invisible to everyone around him. To Manny, Hank is his best friend. Topics of discussion shared between the two go from shallow and acquaintance level to deep existential talks about love, family and friendship that we all can relate to.
Finally, the former Harry Potter star can move on to a new stage in his career where the stigma of just being the boy who lived is a thing of the past. Now, his body can be staged in various locations to act out fantastical human situations – living out Hank’s fear in the real world with a snapping of different bones to fixate himself to look in the right direction. Add in a ton of ingenuity to bring regular life to the woods in a tirade of montages like a Rocky training session, Daniels find unique ways to use Manny in substitution of everyday items we take for granted. Water gushes out of Manny’s mouth for showers and shaving, his teeth are used for cutting and head is used for splitting wood.
All I can think of while Hank is building an exiled life in the woods is poor Manny, if only he knew what his body was being used for. Some uses lean into the strange and absurd while others are very practical. Using farts to start a fire, escape an enraged bear or the lung capacity as an explosive for a grappling hook to get up a steep climb will sure leave a lasting impression once the story ends.
Opposite Radcliffe is Paul Dano who leans into the delusional mental state like Tom Hanks in Cast Away with Manny replacing the emotional support Volleyball Wilson. Daniels doesn’t need to explain how Hank got to this point in life, stranded on an island in the pacific, nor is it necessary to want him to survive. With his entire world crashing down and the realization that Hank has made no significant impact in life, Dano’s energy is harnessed differently into his performance. Both actors lean steadfast into this acid trip of a film by the first-time directors – committing themselves to the roles they’re playing. As the journey expands, Daniels injects more exposition about the two men making their bond grow stronger with one another while simultaneously bringing forward the flaws in humanity. It’s a good balance of the two from the script.
During their journey, I had to keep reminding myself that the purpose of the story is to get from point A to point B. Hank wants to get home and Manny is his own personal corpse GPS (used in a hilarious manner to follow the right path). While the human elements are sure to dazzle with two very delightfully odd performances, Daniel’s story tends to lose track of itself – focusing too heavily on the characters while almost forgetting that Hank is near death and needs the basic necessities to survive. As much as we would like, you can’t live on expired popcorn. There’s a clear madness going on which makes Swiss Army Man utterly engrossing. Despite going completely off the rails, the message is never lost, making the films depth be a constant reminder of the humanity inside a person always being there even when they feel completely invisible to the world.
Written By: Daniels (Daniel Scheinert & Daniel Kwan)
Directed By: Daniels (Daniel Scheinert & Daniel Kwan)
Music By: Andy Hull & Robert McDowell
Cinematography: Larkin Seiple
Starring: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Release Date: June 24, 2016
Running Time: 1 Hour 37 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 72%