Despite Scatological Obsession 'Swiss Army Man' Soars

One immediate benefit of Swiss Army Man, the zany scatological dramedy starring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, is that you'll know right away if it's your speed.

Hank (Dano), seeing a body wash ashore on the deserted island where he's been stranded, escapes from the noose with which he intends to hang himself. And the first thing that happens when he comes upon the body (Radcliffe) is that it emits a low, gurgling fart. This is no death gas. The farts continue, building to such powerful force that Hank is able to ride the corpse, a la jet ski, to a distant shore, propelled by the flatulence. The credits roll to this heroic opening sequence. A score infused with Dano's own a cappella riffing assumes orchestral dimensions.

The film opens Friday at both the Cedar Lee in Cleveland and the Nightlight Cinema in Akron.

Undoubtedly not for everybody, Swiss Army Man is nonetheless a visual delight and a weirdly moving emotional journey. Dano, Radcliffe and directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Schienert (working under the tag-team moniker "Daniels" in their first feature) treat the absurdist material with not only seriousness but affection, and they've managed to make you feel deep feelings for a friendship between a man and a corpse — it is, perhaps, the logical next step in a progression that Cast Away initiated, with Tom Hanks and a volleyball — as well as for the corpse itself ("Manny") brought to pale and herky-jerky life by Radcliffe.

How fully Manny's existence is indebted to Hank's starvation-induced hallucinating remains unclear until the final minutes of the film, but the friendship is portrayed as a door that swings both ways. Manny, a literal "multi-purpose guy" becomes Hank's survival toolshed as they try to make their way back to civilization. He provides water for drinking, jet propulsion from the rear for water travel and from the mouth for various projectile necessities. He's also a source for fire-starting and ramshackle weaponry, for a host of campsite projects and emergencies, via assorted body parts and functions. Hank, in turn, in an effort to help Manny remember his life, dresses as a woman and teaches him how to interact with people in the real world.

It sounds ludicrous to say, but a sequence in which Hank creates a scenario on the bus, encouraging Manny to speak to a female stranger (whom Hank portrays even as he coaches Manny) is one of the most beautiful scenes of the year. It's filmed and edited to perfection, infused with sunlight and Michel-Gondryan woodland props, and of course accompanied by another fine example of the movie's vocally influenced score (courtesy of Andy Hull and Robert McDowell).

Though the script's obsession with boners and poop runs dangerously close to an over-obsession, one that threatens to reduce the other very affecting material about friendship and courage to aberrations in a 90-minute exercise in bathroom humor, this pleasantly wacked-out journey toward home (and self-discovery) makes for one of the most bizarre and, without question, one of the most memorable films of the year.  

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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