Here, for me, is the key image that decodes one of the most important levels of Swiss Army Man: Paul Dano’s Hank, lost in a forest with a talking corpse as his only companion, recreates the children’s book Everybody Poops in a Bible. He draws - in poop - images of animals and people pooping over the holy words of the Lord. But in the context of this film, and I think in the true context of the universe, this isn’t blasphemy. It’s a recognition of our humanity, extending all the way from our shit to our connection to God. Swiss Army Man is a movie that is very much about the miracle of the human body and the shame in which we shroud it. Poopiness, the film says, is next to godliness. After all, where did you get that asshole from anyway?
That’s just one layer of the film’s intriguing and deep metaphors. You could watch Swiss Army Man and find a movie about raising a child. You could watch Swiss Army Man and find a movie about the ways broken people help other broken people. You could watch Swiss Army Man and find a movie that is about loneliness and the power of love and hope. You could watch Swiss Army Man and find a movie about a guy hanging out with a farting corpse. It is all these things, and so much more. Like the multipurpose corpse of the title, Swiss Army Man can be all things to you.
The movie opens with Hank stranded on a small deserted island. He is about to hang himself, having given up on ever being rescued from his lonely hell. But as he stands upon a cooler, noose around his neck, he spies something on the beach: a human figure. Shocked, hopeful, Hank loses his balance and falls off the cooler and starts to choke to death. As Dano’s legs kicked and he gasped for breath I knew I was going to love this movie.
The figure is a corpse, Daniel Radcliffe in a suit. Hank thinks it’s all a cruel joke on him until he realizes that the decay of the corpse has led to an amazing side-effect: it is full of high pressure gas, and quite quickly Hank is riding the corpse like a fart-powered jet ski. The pair wind up on a beach somewhere near civilization - there is the tantalizing debris that we humans leave behind even in the most pristine natural conditions - and Hank drags the corpse with him into the woods.
What happens next is amazing: the corpse begins to speak. It is confused and curious, and it cannot move on its own, but it speaks to Hank. And as the two try to find their way home Hank discovers this body has so many different abilities. It can hold gallons of rainwater in its gullet, it can bite through tough fibers, it can karate chop through logs, it can light its own farts with a snap of its rigor mortised fingers. But most of all it can give Hank a way to examine his own humanity as he helps the corpse - Manny - understand the world around him. From the mundane aspects of life to the most intricate human emotions, Manny and Hank work through them all. Pooping, love, friendship, masturbation, moms, girls on the bus, parties, being weird, Manny and Hank together explore what they mean. And Manny farts along the way.
The movie lives and dies on the chemistry between the two leads. Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe are engaged in the most intimate performances of their careers, constantly touching one another, with Dano poking and probing at Radcliffe, putting his fingers in his mouth, moving him lovingly like a prized doll and, at one point, sharing oxygen in an extended lip-locking moment. They’re incredible together, and the bond they form as they create a strange little civilization for themselves is palpable and loving. Each performance is stunning on its own. Dano is perfectly cast because he is our foremost lovable weirdo; he can go from cozy to crazy in a heartbeat, and that’s important here. Swiss Army Man doesn’t shy away from the darker implications of a guy hanging out with a talking corpse, and there’s no one to better straddle the creepy line than Dano. What makes his performance so extraordinary is the way that he is able to internalize so much of Hank’s larger psychic pain while still projecting it onto Manny, who may or may not be a figment of his imagination. Hank is a guy who, like all of us, spends a lot of time lying to himself, and he knows it, and Dano captures it perfectly.
Manny, real or imagined, is coming from a very different place. While Dano’s Hank is wrestling with his own issues, Manny is a blank slate, and Radcliffe plays him with a perfect, flat curiosity. Manny wants to know what everything is, how the world works, what every new feeling he has means. He’s a toddler growing up quickly, blasting through to adolescence and gradually becoming corrupted the way we all do, corrupted by shame and self-doubt. Radcliffe, who cannot move and must give all his lines through lax lips, sketches this perfectly. He is able to subtly change his expression with the quickness of a cloud over the sun, bringing Manny in seconds from joyous innocence to gloomy self-awareness.
I can’t overstate how good Radcliffe is; he brings this corpse to such perfect life that Manny has become one of my favorite characters of the year. The happiness that Manny experiences at the simplest things is infectious, and the sadness of his coming of age - his eventual descent into believing that he’s disgusting - is crushing. Radcliffe just sits there, slack faced, and somehow makes a dead guy the most alive character of 2016.
Dano and Radcliffe give great performances, but they wouldn’t have much to work with without the script by co-directors the Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert). This is their feature debut and it’s fearless and ambitious in ways that leave you stunned. It’s as if these guys just didn’t know any better, and that’s what makes this film so incredible. They didn’t have limitations, they weren’t held back by good taste or convention. They just wrote and directed their thing.
Known for their work in music videos (most famously the Turn Down For What video) and shorts, it would be easy to assume that the Daniels would take this concept and turn it into a fundamentally twee but visually interesting film that offered no substance or depth. Instead they wrote a script that has the pained, scatalogical humanity of Kurt Vonnegut, a humanity marked by stone-cold knowledge of everything wrong with humans but a dogged determination to love them anyway. Their script is philosophical and juvenile in equal measures, and it plumbs deep emotional and spiritual ideas without being pretentious.
The script is phenomenal - and brave. I love the ending of this film but I can imagine that many others will find it alienating as hell - but it’s the filmmaking that gives Swiss Army Man its transcendence. A passing familiarity with the Daniels’ previous work shows they know how to shoot, but it turns out they know how to take all that imagery and connect it to story and emotion and make it work over the full length of a feature. Individual scenes may be stylized and cool, but they’re all meaningfully so; there are no shots just for the hell of it, and every cool shot, every innovative bit of framing, every delightfully weird image has an intentionality. Every frame of this movie is telling the story and building character and creating emotion, and while Swiss Army Man is often silly and tongue in cheek it’s always dead serious about these things.
The movie is visually inventive and gorgeous, and much of that praise has to be aimed at cinematographer Larkin Seiple, who has taken a three million dollar movie and made it look like it cost 40. And even when the budget becomes obvious the Daniels absorb the impact by going for a handmade style reminiscent of Michel Gondry, and Seiple shoots even these silly moments - as Hank and Manny fly through some obviously fake tree branches - look beautiful and evocative.
Earlier I evoked the name of Kurt Vonnegut, and I don’t do that lightly. He’s one of my favorite writers of all time, and probably the writer whose worldview most matches my own. His combination of clear-eyed cynicism and misty-eyed hope is the dichotomy within myself, and within Swiss Army Man. I rarely ever see this tightrope walked successfully in any medium, let alone film, and the Daniels have done just that. This isn’t the kind of story Vonnegut would have told, but the film is full of his spirit of the absurd and the profound, the profane and the mundane. And like a good Vonnegut novel, Swiss Army Man hits you on so many levels that you need to revisit it; I’ve never read a Vonnegut book just once and I’m sure I will see Swiss Army Man many, many times.
This is, without a doubt, the best film of the year so far. It’s a movie that is a miracle, a movie that’s weird and unique and stupid and smart and somehow never becomes annoying or trite. It’s a movie with real vision behind it, a movie starring two great actors truly allowing themselves to be raw and strange, a movie that is willing to alienate as it seeks understanding and common ground. It’s a beautiful work of truth, and I think it gets just about as close to the meaning of life as any film ever might.
Am I overpraising it? I leave that to you to decide. But I do urge you to see Swiss Army Man on the big screen; this is a film whose visual and auditory power will be diminished at home, whose tonal gymnastics will be stifled by a TV screen. This is a real movie, one that needs to be watched on a real movie screen. At the very least I hope you give this incredible movie that chance.