Back in 2003 Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” flummoxed audiences with its strange, off-putting take on two guys lost in the wilderness. But that oddly touching rumination on existential questions is a walk in the park (or, in its case, desert) compared to this outrageous concoction by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (“Daniels,” as they’re called in the opening credits).
This mostly two-hander starts with sad-sack Hank (Paul Dano) marooned on a small island and preparing to hang himself after the pathetic pleas for help he’s launched onto the waves have gone unanswered. Just as he’s about to commit suicide, a body washes up on shore—a corpse that’s eventually named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), which has flatulence issues so extreme that Hank is actually able to mount it and ride it like a jet-ski to the mainland.
Acknowledging the body’s usefulness, Hank carts it along on his trek into the surrounding forest, and finds it beneficial in other respects too. It serves, for example, as a sort of portable water cooler, belching up drinkable fluid as Hank needs it. After a night in a cave, it even comes haltingly back to life, able to speak though it can’t move and suffers from amnesia. Using a photo of a mysterious woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) on the screen saver of a failing cell phone, Hank tries to help Manny remember (and to persuade himself) what it’s like to be alive and why one should try to remain that way. The two talk at great length about things, with Hank even cobbling together recreations of episodes—like a bus ride—to jog Manny’s memory (though flashbacks show that the experience was actually Hank’s) and dressing up as a woman to induce the sort of very noticeable physical reaction the corpse has heretofore evinced while looking at photos of gorgeous women in discarded issues of Sports Illustrated. In time Manny can actually move around a bit, something that comes in especially handy when the duo’s campfire is visited by an unfriendly bear.
It’s pretty clear up to this point that much of what’s being portrayed is the hallucinatory working of Hank’s mind, perhaps what he’s experiencing while hanging in his makeshift noose (at one point he even muses about his life flashing before his eyes at point of death). The Daniels throw that simple explanation for a loop, however, when Hank and Manny make their way to the backyard of the mysterious woman they’ve both been fantasizing over, and are accosted by her and her young daughter; that’s followed by the arrival of the cops, a news crew and Hank’s estranged father. And that doesn’t end things: Hank takes Manny back into the woods, pursued by them all. Of course that could all be part of Hank’s imagination, too.
It’s difficult to categorize “Swiss Army Man.” Wags at Sundance dubbed it the “farting corpse movie” and left it at that. But such a casually dismissive jab does it a disservice. True, most viewers will find the flatulence business a cheap gag whose repetition only makes it worse, and anybody searching for narrative logic beyond the presumption that “It’s all just a dream” is going to be disappointed.
But while that’s undoubtedly true, the movie manages to transcend being a one-joke piece (and a pretty coarse joke at that) through the soulful performance of Dano, always adept at playing a poor sap pining away for some meaning in life, and the dexterousness of Radcliffe, who continues his post-“Harry Potter” campaign to prove his acting mettle by taking on a part with the purely physical demands of this one. As strange as it sounds, Dano and Radcliffe manage to build a rapport that’s surprisingly moving by the close. This isn’t just “Weekend at Bernie’s” redux. On the technical side Jason Hamer’s makeup effects and the sound work of Andrew Twite and Brent Kiser are especially deserving of note, but Larkin Seiple’s crisp widescreen lensing is also estimable, as are Jason Kisarday’s production design and David Duarte’s art direction. The visual effects team, supervised by Eduardo :Alvin” Cruz, provide amusingly cheesy moments, and Andy Hull and Robert McDowell deliver a cheeky score with vocal contributions from Dano and Radcliffe.
Of course, the picture doesn’t provide answers any more than Samuel Beckett does. It’s a neo-Dadaist confection that muses on the meaning of life through absurdism and a deliberate effort to shock, raised beyond a juvenile premise by the commitment of two remarkable young actors.