Swiss Army Man is, by its very nature, an inherently polarizing film. It spawned significant walkouts at its Sundance premiere this January on the merits of its outlandish premise. It’s nigh impossible to describe and possibly even more difficult to explain. It’s also really, really good. Yes, the film in which Harry Potter plays a perennially priapic and phenomenally flatulent cadaver has finally come to Asheville, and I’m strongly suggesting that you see it.
The film, nominally a buddy-comedy of sorts, is something along the lines of a darker — and far funnier — reimagining of Weekend at Bernie’s with a heavy dose of Robinson Crusoe. That description, however, falls as far short of accuracy as calling Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo a Western or Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend a road-trip movie. Swiss Army Man proves to be much more than its constituent pieces would suggest, a profoundly sincere examination of deep-seated and eminently relatable feelings of isolation, inadequacy and the inability to connect with others. Granted, this is a picture that justifiably warrants skepticism. But, if you can get on board with the surreality of the concept, you’ll find a film that works much better than it has any right to on paper.
Though Swiss Army Man’s cast initially gave me pause, Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe have more than allayed my concerns. Radcliffe’s decision to portray a farting corpse with supernatural powers bears all the earmarks of a child actor desperately trying to shake off the baggage of playing an iconic character throughout his youth, but his level of competency in sustaining the absurdity of the role without indulging in self-parody and his commendable commitment to the physical rigors of the part quickly dispel any thoughts of erstwhile boy wizardry. Dano, typically hit or miss for me, proves to have been the perfect choice to play protagonist Hank, as his earnestness and fragility impart a shocking degree of pathos to what is an objectively creepy and disturbing character. Even Mary Elizabeth Winstead, functioning strictly as a MacGuffin (a story-telling device that serves only to advance the plot) throughout the vast majority of the film, manages to craft something substantial from her brief appearance. Ultimately, the cast elevates material that could otherwise have fallen painfully flat.
That the material in question was the feature debut of a writing-directing duo previously best known for their music video work raised further doubts for me, and again these doubts proved to be almost entirely unfounded. Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, billed here simply as “DANIELS,” are proficient stylists who exhibit enough restraint to employ their more extravagant flourishes only in moments necessitated by story and character, a level of discretion often lacking in such directors of similar pedigree as Michel Gondry. The script is remarkably tight for a film that spends the majority of its running time focused solely on two characters, especially in consideration of the fact that one of them is dead. Humor doesn’t get much blacker in tone than Swiss Army Man, but the laughs are genuine and hard-earned, with Kwan and Scheinert taking great pains to impart a great deal of subtext to jokes about masturbation and the bodily functions of a decaying corpse. An entirely a cappella soundtrack, composed by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of Atlanta-based indie-rockers Manchester Orchestra, is performed predominantly by Dano and Radcliffe to shockingly appropriate effect. On the whole, Kwan and Scheinert have made a series of good decisions that the elevator pitch for Swiss Army Man could never have suggested.
It should be obvious at this point that Swiss Army Man is not a film for the masses. While the jokes go far beyond the scatological, those with an aversion to such things will no doubt find themselves en route to the nearest exit. Even moviegoers with a proclivity for magical realism may find themselves occasionally flummoxed by the fundamental weirdness of this film. But those who stick it out will enjoy the warmest and most entertaining film ever made about a suicidal stalker and his decaying best friend, as well as one of the most gratifying endings in recent memory.
On a personal note, in light of Ken Hanke’s recent passing, it was hard to watch this movie without envying Dano’s friendship with Radcliffe’s talking corpse. As I sat in Ken’s usual seat at the theater, I consistently found myself wishing that some grief-induced hallucination of similar circumstance would let me speak to him one last time. Rated R for language and sexual material.
Now playing at Carolina Cinemark and Fine Arts Theatre