Swiss Army Man aims its sights at some lofty themes, while attempting to make them more digestible with some well-timed flatulence. It’s a film that takes more chances than the average Hollywood fare, and succeeds in providing an occasional visual and auditory feast. Unfortunately it’s felled by a script that just can’t sustain its 95-minute running time.
We’re first introduced to Hank (Paul Dano) as he’s attempting to hang himself. He’s been stranded on a desert island for days or weeks and has given up hope of rescue. But just before the fatal plunge, Hank spots something unusual: a body (Daniel Radcliffe), washed up on the beach.
It doesn’t take long for Hank to realize that the body is very deceased. It occasionally lets out gas (as dead bodies tend to) but that’s about it in terms of vibrancy. So Hank swipes the body’s belt and attempts his suicide again.
Only the farts haven’t ceased. If anything, they’ve grown more consistent and forceful, propelling the body off the beach on its own form of wind power.Only the farts haven’t ceased. If anything, they’ve grown more consistent and forceful, propelling the body off the beach on its own form of wind power. Hank realizes that this body is his ticket to freedom, strapping a rope around the corpse’s mouth and riding him (it?) like a jet ski. And so begins a story of friendship and survival.
Hank soon names the body Manny (so named for a sound vaguely made when he compressed the lungs of the deceased). Seems that Manny’s abilities extend far beyond some convenient flatulence. Whenever Hank’s survival story looks darkest, he discovers that Manny’s stomach can be used as a canteen to store potable water, or his mouth can be filled with projectile weapons and fired at unfortunate prey.
These revelations are surprising and entertaining, leading to the most enjoyable moments of Swiss Army Man. A new "upgrade" is generally accompanied by a short musical montage as Hank gets ever closer to civilization. The original music, composed by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, is stellar, using a constantly-gathering chorus to enkindle feelings of hope and overcoming the impossible.
These musical interludes are few, however, and are far outweighed by extended dialog sequences that stymie the pacing of the film and the likability of the characters. Manny soon achieves sentience and begins asking broad platitudes like "What is life?" While Hank does his best to explain concepts like love, masturbation and public transit, these scenes feel blunt, childish and worse-still, boring.
All we’re left with is a mopey 20-something with an uncaring father and an unrequited love.
We never really get to know Hank as a person before his island exile. All we’re left with is a mopey 20-something with an uncaring father and an unrequited love. Considering the overwhelmingly original premise of using a versatile corpse to survive in the wilderness, Hank’s character feels typical and shallow.
While Dano’s performance struggles to come together, the art design of Swiss Army Man does a lot of the heavy lifting for him. Hank creates elaborate sets and costumes to teach Manny the ways of the world. These scenes, also backed by brilliant musical interludes, are beautiful but short-lived, quickly overtaken by more one-on-one dialog that just can’t hold a candle.
Radcliffe’s Manny, performed with a raspy, decomposing American accent, is actually the more interesting character in this tale. His broad, basic queries about life and buses are soon replaced by thoughts on companionship and being comfortable around people you care about, which at least has a bit more nuance.
It’s hard to ignore that the director/writer team of Swiss Army Man has worked exclusively in shorter formats. This is their first feature. The concept works incredibly well for a trailer, and would probably succeed as a 20 or 30 minute short film. In expanding the idea, the strengths of the film, terrific audio and art direction, are drowned out by familiar, drab dialog and weak characters. A powerful digestive system can only get you so far.