Let 'er R.I.P.

Swiss Army Man
(USA, 90 min.)
Written and directed by Daniels
Starring: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe
Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano in Swiss Army Man.
Photo by Joyce Kim, courtesy of A24.

Get a whiff of Swiss Army Man! This Sundance comedy of infamous flatulence features Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse. His performance is a true novelty, not only because the recurring joke has lots of gas, but also because his turn as a stiff injects the film with life. Swiss Army Man is an irreverent bromance for the indie crowd.

Radcliffe stars alongside Paul Dano, who plays Hank, a man stranded on an island following a plane crash. Hank wants to escape his isolation and he finally decides to end it all, but it’s only once he’s hanging by a noose that he sees Manny washed up on the beach. The dead guy literally saves his life, since Hank realises that he isn’t alone anymore and runs towards the man, unaware that he’s already in early stages of decomposition.

Maybe it’s the maggots churning in his belly or just his bowels relaxing with rigor mortis, but Manny greets Hank with a big healthy fart. Cue another, then another, then a whole series of pops and disgustingly squishy, wet-sounding excretions, and Manny all but ignites a fireworks show of flatulence to celebrate Hank’s euphoria.

Then, in what might be the most outrageous desecration of a corpse since the climax of Neon Demon, Hank hitches a ride to the farting stiff and harnesses the gas power like a motorboat. The opening credits have only just begun by this point in the film, but Swiss Army Man lays claim to being the most wildly ‘out there’ movie of the summer.

Things get even weirder, though, once Hank and Manny find land. After crossing the ocean through the power of wet farts, Hank notices that Manny shows signs of life. It’s a testament to Radcliffe’s performance that Swiss Army Man works at all because he makes the stiff surprisingly lifelike without betraying a pulse or heartbeat. Maybe it’s the imperceptible grin on his face or the posthumous sparkle that glazes his eyes, but Radcliffe gives the corpse a hint of life even before he becomes animated. Give credit, too, to Canuck editor Matthew Hannam (Into the Forest) for cutting this performance together with a dynamic pulse, stitching the character together like Dr. Frankenstein, to portray someone who’s both dead and alive. Swiss Army Man creates sparks of life without betraying fantastical nuances of the fetid corpse.

Dano is fine too, although his performance carries the self-awareness that he can’t seem to shake from his work. Together, Dano and Radcliffe are a fun screen team as Hank draws life from Manny and gives it back in turn, thriving from the power of human contact in a bunch of increasingly loony set pieces. Hank, for example, realises that he can resurrect Manny from the dead bit by bit by showing him wank mags and feeding him false hope of a girl who awaits him a home. Similarly, as Manny rises to life, his wayward erections act as compasses pointing the boys back home.

The nature of letting boners be their guide makes the relationship between the two men increasingly intimate, which Swiss Army Man handles with a droll sense of humour and a queer-positive outlook that’s bound to resonate strongly with audiences post-Orlando as the men realise a bond forming between them. Whether it’s romantic or platonic, love or friendship, it’s strong.

Swiss Army Man toys with the possibility that Hank might be bringing Manny back to life merely as a coping mechanism for his own survival, and the film humorously plays with Manny’s life/death dynamic by having Radcliffe’s make-up become bluer and bluer as his character rots in the summer heat. The film admittedly self-implodes in its messy finale when the true nature of Manny’s mortality reveals itself, but logic isn’t the endgame, eclectic charm and humour is.

The writing/directing team of the Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) devises some ridiculous scenes to play up the offbeat bromance between the human and the stiff. From lighting bonfires with rigid bones and intestinal gas to hunting game with Manny’s hard limbs, Swiss Army Man uses every element of the dead dude’s body to its advantage. The highlight of the film, though, is an elaborate skit in which Hank reconstructs a city bus and dresses in drag to seduce Manny and let him live out his fantasy relationship with the girl he believes is waiting for him back home (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Set to the theme of Jurassic Park, she-Hank waltzes into the bus with a wash of heartwarming natural light and seductive slow motion. The notes of John Williams have never had such an elevated sense of optimism and irony. It’s such a funny and beautiful scene because, like Swiss Army Man, it’s so proudly and unabashedly random.

Swiss Army Man opens in Canada beginning with Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver on July 1.
Catch sneak peeks in Toronto at Cineplex Varsity with Daniels in attendance for a Q&A.