[This is a re-post of my Swiss Army Man review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The movie opens in NY and LA this Friday, June 24th.]
I have never in my life seen a movie like Swiss Army Man. And that’s saying something, considering that most films resemble other movies in one way or another. To be truly original requires not only an immense amount of talent, but an even greater amount of ambition, and boy do writers/directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively known as Daniels) have both in spades. While the fable overshoots its reach a bit in its final moments, the effort nevertheless remains remarkable, with truly terrific performances by Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe making this insane, sweet, and profound meditation on life and death sing.
Swiss Army Man is a tough movie to describe because saying too much ruins the narrative and thematic surprises along the way, and explaining certain things out of context make it sound downright crazy (which, in some ways, it is). The film opens with Dano’s character Hank, who has been stranded on an island in the Pacific Ocean for a very long time and has finally decided to commit suicide by hanging. But just as he’s about to do the deed, a well-dressed corpse, played by Daniel Radcliffe, washes up on the shore.
Hank at first is enthused to see Radcliffe’s character arrive, thinking he’s the living companion he needs to keep on going, but his spirits are soon dampened by the fact that the man is, in fact, dead and therefore can make no companion at all. Or can he? Through a series of hilarious and outlandish events, Hank forms a bond with said corpse (which he names Manny) and the two set out on a journey to return home.
The skill required to convincingly portray a lifeless corpse for the film’s first act cannot be overstated, and Radcliffe does a tremendous job acting as a foil opposite Hank, who’s dragging him around as if he were a motionless companion. But Radcliffe’s work becomes even more impressive when Manny begins to potentially show signs of something resembling life, though to say more would spoil some of the film’s more fun surprises.
Ultimately, throughout this insane journey (did I say this movie is insane?) Manny teaches Hank how to live again, though not in the way one would expect and certainly not to the outcome one might think is inevitable. The relationship between Hank and Manny is at turns playful, contentious, and surprisingly moving, and the chemistry between Dano and Radcliffe is palpable. While Radcliffe may have the more obviously difficult role—which, again, he knocks out of the park—Dano’s performance is equally stirring, proving once more that he is truly one of the most interesting performers of his generation.
The humor in Swiss Army Man is juvenile at times (prepare yourself for a lot of fart jokes), which sometimes becomes a bit of a distraction, but credit to Kwan and Scheinert for pushing this wild premise to its limits and beyond with moxie to spare. And in keeping with the fact that this is unlike any movie you’ve ever seen, the film features a uniquely incredible original score by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of the indie rock band Manchester Orchestra, which incorporates some haunting a capella work by Dano and Radcliffe. The music of the film is vital to delivering the emotional truth of some of the more outlandish twists and turns, and it’s a tremendous piece of work all its own.
While the off-putting nature of some of the film’s comedy may be too much for some, the electricity of Dano and Radcliffe’s performances is in and of itself reason enough to see this film. It’s truly spectacular work from both, especially considering they have to carry the entire movie as its only two main characters. And when the film touches on profundity in spite of some truly disturbing narrative turns, Dano and Radcliffe absolutely sell the emotional truth at the center of this relationship.
In a world filled with reboots, remakes, franchises, sequels, “interconnected universe” movies, and even predictable dramas, it’s refreshing—almost overwhelmingly so—to see something so different. While the ambition of the film overshoots its mark somewhat, and the humor leans a bit too heavily on the juvenile, Swiss Army Man hits more than it misses, and the fearless turns by Dano and Radcliffe are remarkable. Funny, sweet, and wholly unique, Swiss Army Man is an insane strange bird of a film that is not to be missed.