Reviewed by GREG KING
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Paul Dano, Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
Weekend At Bernie’s meets Castaway? In a cinema landscape shaped by an endless array of sequels, remakes and special effects driven comic book adaptations and superhero movies it is refreshing to come across something a little different, a little left of centre.
Hank (Paul Dano, from There Will Be Blood, Little Miss Sunshine, etc) has been stranded on a remote island for a long time now and has given up hope of rescue. When we first meet him he is about to end it all by hanging himself. But then he spots a body washed up on the shore. He befriends the body, naming it Manny. Whereas in Castaway Tom Hanks had a volleyball he named Wilson to talk to, in Swiss Army Man, Hank has only the corpse to talk to and keep him company.
Then he discovers that the gaseous, wheezing and farting corpse has a number of uses that help him survive his ordeal. Like a multi-purpose Swiss army knife, Manny comes in handy as Hank tries to survive long enough to find his way home to civilization. Using flatulence power, Hank rides Manny like a jet ski, finding relative haven on a nearby island that seems closer to civilization. He uses Manny to start fires, as a source of clean water, and for bizarre company at night. And even to fend off a bear. And in a series of bizarre existential conversations, Hank teaches Manny what it means to be human.
Manny’s various bodily functions are certainly to the fore of the comedy here. But also somewhat surprisingly Manny is able to talk, albeit in mangled English, and Hank shares memories of his life before he became stranded. His memories include visions of a girl named Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, from 10 Cloverfield Lane, etc). But audiences will find themselves wondering how much of what happens is real or how much is a figment of Hank’s imagination.
The surreal Swiss Army Man offers up an unusual take on the buddy comedy formula, but there is also a lot of heart at the core of the story as it explores themes of companionship, survival, life and death, loneliness, and identity. This unusual concept is the debut feature film from actors and writers turned directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who operate under the joint name of Daniels. They met at college, and have made a few quirky short films together, as well as making their name with some great and inventive music videos. They have scored two Grammy nominations along the way.
Ever since the end of the Harry Potter franchise, Radcliffe has been taking on a variety of different roles to show that he can do more than play the famous boy wizard – he has even appeared nude on stage in a revival of Equus. Playing a corpse, albeit a fairly lively one, is an unusual and demanding role for Radcliffe, but he delivers a surprising and wonderful physical performance here as Manny and allows his body to be subjected to a number of indignities along the way. Dano seems to enjoy playing the emotionally stunted, tortured or wounded loner, and he delivers another solid performance here. For the most part, Swiss Army Man is a two hander, and Radcliffe and Dano share a great rapport.
Despite prominent listing in the credits, Winstead doesn’t really appear in the film until the final ten minutes or so, and has limited screen time apart from a couple of flashback/dream sequences.
Swiss Army Man revels in the quirky nature of the material, and it’s almost as if Michael Gondry was directing a more surreal version of Castaway. However, the film loses its way in the middle section, where it becomes a little too self indulgent, and never quite recaptures its early vibe.
Likely to be remembered as that film in which Harry Potter played a farting corpse, Swiss Army Man is something of an acquired taste that will not be to everybody’s liking. But those on its wavelength will appreciate its quirky charm and offbeat and black sense of humour.