“The Farting Corpse Movie.” That was the moniker Swiss Army Man infamously took on when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Some people hailed the film as brilliant while others hated it, even to the point of walking out. At the end of the day, the movie won out, acquiring a nice mid-summer release. Thank heaven for that. The promise of anything original is already a godsend in a season dominated by creative bankruptcy. Frankly, it’s been the kind of couple months that call into question if film is even an endeavor worth perusing. However, Swiss Army Man turns out to be not only a mere remedy for a lackluster summer but a tidal wave of inventive filmmaking.
The film finds Hank (Paul Dano) stranded on a deserted island for an unknown reason. Things seem hopeless, and Hank has no intention of sticking around. However, as he is about to hang himself, something incredible happens. A corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on the shore, with a rather perplexing ability. Somehow, the body is still heavily flatulent. So much so, that he is able to push himself through the water simply by farting. Taking the opportunity in stride, Hank and the corpse escape the island, but then find themselves stranded in a nearby forest. Hank begins to communicate with the corpse (named Manny) who has taken on an infantile personality.
On paper, that premise just might sound like the worst movie ever made, or at the very least absolutely nonsensical. That is the exact disadvantage that directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (Daniels) use so strategically in their feature debut. For starters, they’ve made one of the most beautiful looking films of the year. Everything from the color scheme to the vibrant cinematography has the spontaneity of overjoyed children at play. The vast and mysterious jungle setting creates the feeling of a wide open backyard. A backyard where anything one can think up is possible, even if it doesn’t make sense. The fantastic score plays into this even further, often having Dano and Radcliffe perform vocals over the music. This goofy energy never lets up, as if it’s constantly avoiding being called back in for dinner.
Swiss Army Man isn’t merely an exercise in style, however. Both Hank and Manny are beautifully realized characters only bolstered by Dano and Radcliffe. Dano, who so often is relegated to supporting roles, excels in his moment to headline. It’s a deeply understated performance. Hank mostly expresses himself through the world around him, but Dano gives his mopey demeanor a lot of charm. However, it is Radcliffe who emerges as the dead-eyed, farting revelation. Through his every contortion and fluctuation, he commits completely to the physical aspects of the role. Many actors would be terrified to be this physically vulnerable on screen, but Radcliffe gleefully asserts himself to fantastic comedic effect. His droll, childish delivery only serves as the icing on the cake. Virtually everything that comes out of Manny’s mouth is hysterical, which makes us care about him as much as Hank does.
Although the film has a very immature sense of humor, do not mistake that for the film itself being immature. Daniels use the crude humor as a carefully crafted technique to disarm the audience. They intentionally bring the audience back to the state of mind where something as simple as a fart was funny. When Manny comes alive, his personality is that of one of those children. As Dano teaches Manny about the world, we re-discover the base concepts of life with him. As he starts to learn about ideas such as love, loss, and friendship the film invites us to re-evaluate our own thoughts on the subjects. However, this is not a heavy-handed message film. It’s a reminder that both the virtues and ills of society ultimately stem from a very childish place. In that way, it evokes the feel of a Rated-R Dr. Suess or Maurice Sendak picture book.
To merely call Swiss Army Man a great film and call it a day would be doing it a disservice. This is a movie so joyfully uninhibited that it invokes the feeling of falling in love with the craft in the first place. It’s crafted by the group of kids who spent their summers running around in the woods with a camera. Only now, they have the budget to completely realize their absurd fantasies. Every inch of this is made with love. It will certainly not be for everybody, as its exterior immaturity might be too much for some to take. However, for those who love cinema that throws caution to the wind, buy a ticket, and let it rip.