“Caught in a storm,” reads the SOS note, bobbing in a sea of perfect blue. On an island too small for one man, one man (Paul Dano, in a Robinson Crusoe beard) tightens a noose around his neck. But he soon has company, washed in by the waves: a man with pallid skin, unblinking eyes, and a mouth frozen in a perpetual grimace. Five minutes is about all it takes for Swiss Army Man to establish its premise, its characters, its single setting. It’s also the amount of time the movie needs to announce itself as the bugfuck American comedy of the year. That lifeless body on the beach bears the unmistakable appearance of Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe. And before long, the music rises, the opening credits dramatically roll, and suicidal survivor Hank (Dano) is riding his new friend across the water like a jet ski, propelled by his posthumous flatulence. As meet-cutes go, it’s memorable.
The easy elevator pitch on Swiss Army Man is that it’s Cast Away meets Weekend At Bernie’s. Weird as that movie may sound, it’s not nearly as weird as the one actually cooked up by “Daniels,” a.k.a. Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the branded directing duo making its feature-length debut. No simple logline can account for the rubbery slapstick, like something out of a morbid Stephen Chow movie; the body horror played for insane laughs; or the existential despair that invades the film like a thief in the night. At its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Swiss Army Man provoked waves of walkouts, presumably from folks who couldn’t stomach the sight of Radcliffe barfing out drinking water like one of the puppets from Team America. But alienating viewers is a badge of honor for a movie this singularly, sometimes uproariously, strange.
For a while, it seems as though Radcliffe has been hired to simply play dead, or even just to lend his likeness to an unblinking, unspeaking dummy—a sick joke on any Potter fan buying a ticket only for him. But eventually Manny, as Hank dubs the stiff he’s ridden to a larger and less secluded wilderness, begins to creak to life, like Pinocchio or a hapless, childlike zombie. Manny can’t remember anything about his life, or indeed about life in general, but he’s not without his uses: Per the title, this talking corpse becomes an undead tool kit—his erratic erection functioning like a compass, his mouth and lungs a projectile device, his stiff limbs handily spring-loaded through rigor mortis. More than that, though, Manny becomes an all-purpose companion: a child for Hank to teach, a partner in adolescent mischief, a loyal confidant, even a soul mate and potential love interest. Add “complicated buddy picture” to the IMDB keywords.
Swiss Army Man benefits immensely from the involvement of its two stars, both of whom fully commit to this gonzo scenario. Exploiting his character’s limited range of motion for some inspired physical comedy, Radcliffe has the showier of the two roles. But the sneaky pathos rests largely on Dano—especially once his bizarre bromance begins to look like an elaborate form of therapy, with the movie using daft conversation (topics include masturbation and Netflix) and wordless flashbacks to fill in Hank’s backstory. For everything else it is, Swiss Army Man is also a stealth lonely-dude indie, filtering the usual self-pity of that genre through the lens of desert-island madness. There’s even an object of desire, a dream girl played in pictures and nearly subliminal flashes by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, though the Daniels shrewdly subvert that cliché by emphasizing its creepy, unflattering one-sidedness.
At times, Swiss Army Man feels like an experiment in audience engagement: Can we push past the absurdity of the premise and the gross-out humor it facilitates to get emotionally invested? To that end, the Daniels flirt a little too hard with going full indie-movie maudlin on our asses, the whimsy reaching critical levels when Hank and Manny, in their attempt to reconstruct the civilization they’ve lost, begin creating a dollhouse jungle society, like something out of a Michel Gondry wet dream. But the madness of the myopic POV rescues Swiss Army Man from its own preciousness; this is the hipster odyssey of healing gone completely unglued, as though Hank were remaking some Focus Feature in his severely damaged head. The music hilariously knocks that point home, with the Daniels practically spoofing the schoolyard jangle of Karen O’s Where The Wild Things Are score, while collaging in half-remembered lyrics from “Cotton Eye Joe” and snippets of the score from Jurassic Park.
The fact that it’s often Dano and Radcliffe themselves humming and singing and triumphantly chanting on the soundtrack only reinforces the sense that we’re stuck—in literary terms—with an unreliable narrator. From its songs to its arts-and-crafts art direction to its largely practical effects, the film feels hand-made, the better to emphasize that everything happening on screen is unfolding from one very warped perspective. Swiss Army Man pulls right up to the edge of its own reality, threatening to draw a line between what’s “actually” happening and what isn’t. Instead, it turns and plunges right back into the choppy fray. To say that this is a film not to every taste is putting it mildly; for every viewer repelled by the boner and fart jokes, there will be another uninterested in having their heartstrings tenderly plucked. But the title is apropos for a curiosity so multifaceted: It’s a bit of a Swiss Army movie, too.