A film review by Craig J. Koban July 22, 2016


2016, R, 95 mins.


Paul Dano as Hank  /  Daniel Radcliffe as Manny  /  Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Sarah

Written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert

I’ve been covering the movie beat for a long time.  I’ve screen and reviewed nearly 1500 films over the course of the last twelve years.  

I can categorically say that SWISS ARMY MAN is one of the strangest films that I’ve seen during that span of time.  

Perhaps best – and most notoriously – described as “The Daniel Radcliff Farting Corpse Movie” (early reactions to the film at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year resulted in multiple walkouts), SWISS ARMY MAN carries its absurdist premise like a proud badge of honor and, on one positive, it completely defies simplistic genre labels.  Parts of me were glad I saw it, whereas pasts of me, deep down, were mortified that I did.  The film is bafflingly peculiar and I admired its never-look-back gumption to be daringly different, but as to whether its execution matches its ambition?  The jury is out. 

SWISS ARMY MAN, rather thankfully, never wastes time with expositional particulars.  Right from the get go we meet Hank (Paul Dano), a poor sap that has apparently been trapped all alone on a desert island for what appears to be an awfully long time.  He’s hit rock bottom, so much so that he’s decided to commit suicide by fastening himself a noose.  Just as he’s about to end it all he notices a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washing up on shore, which we're assuming represents the very first human contact (dead or alive) that Hank has had in quite some time.  Then the corpse passes gas – definitely not of the silent, but deadly variety…this one is loud – which springs Hank into action.  Now, despite all outward signs, this body (which Hank dubs Manny) is very much dead, but not so dead that Hank can’t jump on his back and use his chronic flatulence as a form of propulsion to jet ski off the island. 

I’m not making this up, but that’s just the beginning of this film’s unbridled weirdness.   



Hank and Manny do manage to make to the mainland, but very far away from civilization.  Manny becomes a sort of new companion for Hank, seeing as (a) he becomes capable of speech and (b) he emerges as a multi-purpose tool…a “Swiss Army Man,” if you will.  There’s literally nothing that Manny can’t do, like using his…ummmm…erections as a survival compass, spewing out geysers of water like a fountain, spitting objects out of his mouth with the speed of a bullet, and chopping items easily in half with one swing of his arm.  Yet, Manny is…a decomposing dead man.  He can’t really move under his own power and control, which forces Hank to carry him everywhere...and that complicates things.  However, the more Hank travels with his newfangled companion through the wild the more he wishes to “teach” him about the larger world around him, which manifests itself in Hank building structures in the forests that resemble cafes, busses, and movie theatres to “educate” him.  Slowly, but surely, Hank learns that Manny is in love with a woman from his past life, which prompts both of them to pull out all of the stops to make it back to civilization alive…well…sort of for one of them. 

It’s very fitting that the last line of dialogue uttered in SWISS ARMY MAN is “What the fuck?”  Directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (credited as “Daniels” in the film) create and execute such an intoxicatingly baffling filmgoing experience.  The film’s endless oddity grabs our attention and never lets go.  There's a definitive sense of discovery in SWISS ARMY MAN, and despite all of its wantonly perverse series of events that unfold, I was never fully bored with the journey that it boldly asked me to take.  When all is said and done, you either have to let yourself go and submit to this film…or not.  Hank himself, considering all of the sheer lunacy that goes on around him, is a compelling creation, a person driven to his absolute wit’s end by a seemingly no-win survival scenario that finds a newfound lease on living and surviving with his relationship to…his farting corpse buddy.  Perhaps SWISS ARMY MAN is not about descending into unbridled madness as much as it’s about...embracing it. 

This might be the most thanklessly acted film of 2016.  Dano is a performer that’s sometimes a bit too overzealous and histrionic for his own good in key film roles, but he’s really tailored made and perfectly cast here as Hank and fully embraces all of his emotional frailties and fanatical drives to keep his very odd friendship with Manny – ahem! – alive throughout the story.  Radcliffe, on the other hand, has perhaps the toughest and trickiest acting challenge here, seeing as he has to make a fully deceased and, for the most part, paralyzed dead man somehow morph into a developed and realized entity.  Not only does he deliver an astonishing physical performance, but he also conveys a multitude of inner meaning primarily through his zombified facial expressions.  I’ve been largely tough on Radcliffe throughout is career; I’ve never thought much of him as a charismatic actor with a considerable amount of presence, but his work in SWISS ARMY MAN is in a whole other zany and compelling stratosphere.  Manny never becomes a painful-to-watch one joke persona in this film, and it’s mostly because of Radcliffe’s courageous levels of dedication here. 

SWISS ARMY MAN is also quite aesthetically accomplished, and the directors have a real affinity for dreamlike visuals and spontaneously loose and freewheeling imagery that recalls the brilliantly lyrical gonzo work of Michel Gondry.  The musical score here also makes for a fascinating case study, mostly because of the way that Hank and Manny…sometimes…sing along with the score in individual moments that are beyond meta.  And, yes, even though the film is about an ever growing bromance between a man and his dead pal that has gas issues, SWISS ARMY MAN does tackle some interesting themes at its core, like the notions of alienation, loneliness, the therapeutic value of companionship, and fully letting yourself go in the moment of any dire situation. 

Here’s the problem: Is SWISS ARMY MAN just pretentious artsy fartsy (no pun intended) nonsense?  Even though I despise such indifferent monikers when describing tough to crack and avant garde films like this, there’s no denying that SWISS ARMY MAN sometime wages a war within itself.  There are moments when it treats its ape shit crazy premise with a soul crushing solemnity and other times when it’s played for the purposes of macabre laughs.  I never gained an impression of what Kwan and Scheinert really thought of their characters and premise.  Is SWISS ARMY MAN just lowbrow slapstick that uses bathroom and bodily function humor for cheap laughs or does it use it to communicate larger ideas of what intimate communication between two outsiders entails?  Is SWISS ARMY MANY exquisitely rendered absurdist art or is it just playing one large twisted gag on viewers.  

Ultimately, this kept me at a frustrating distance away from the film, which is especially hammered home in a would-be uplifting, but maddeningly ambiguous ending that thinks it’s saying everything when it actually says very little.  SWISS ARMY MAN is not worthy of being walked out on, that much is certain.  Dano’s and Radcliffe’s miraculously focused performances kept me in my seat.  Alas, maybe this film is simply too impenetrably weird for its own good; that, and it really has no solid emotional payoff.  But this film is an original work by promising filmmakers.  In an age permeated by lazily rendered sequels and reboots, originality should be embraced and celebrated…perhaps just not as much as a fart in the wind. 


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