Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe in Swiss Army Man (Courtesy of the Sundance Institute}
Swiss Army Man, easily the most bombastic film to hit Sundance this year, is truly a rollercoaster. The film cycles through different tones like the Wheel of Fortune, shifting from giddily juvenile to existentially fraught to quietly meditative every couple minutes or so. Directed by viral kings Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, this paragon of millennial entertainment stars The Boy Who Lived himself, Daniel Radcliffe, doing his best to break type by literally playing a rotting corpse. Dragging said corpse around the forest is Paul Dano as Hank, a suicidal runaway who finds new meaning to life after riding the farting Radcliffe across the open sea like a jet ski. If you’re already rolling your eyes at the excess of body humor, then Swiss Army Man may not be for you, but bear with me – the film packs a more entertaining punch than it might at first seem.
After escaping his desert island confinement through the magical flatulence of Radcliffe’s corpse, Hank discovers other intriguing uses to a freshly dead body (hence the film’s title). Not only does Radcliffe store drinking water for Hank inside his lungs, but he also functions as a projectile weapon when small objects are expelled from his mouth by performing the Heimlich on him. What’s more, when Hank begins to hallucinate from starvation, Radcliffe is miraculously reanimated (mercifully allowing the truly competent actor to make actual faces and say actual lines), becoming Hank’s best friend, confidant, and almost-lover. As Hank spirals deeper and deeper into regret-induced delirium, his reasons for abandoning civilization become clearer – his mother is dead, he feels no connection to his father, and he cannot form relationships with anyone, especially not with the pretty girl on the bus. Living vicariously through the corpse he has mentally revived, Hank becomes that pretty girl on the bus in order to allow Radcliffe to woo him and, via proxy, overcome Hank’s own faults.
Inevitably, these circular charades lead Hank to further despair, and he frequently gives up the ruse and questions his own sanity. Unfortunately, it is in these potentially poignant moments that Swiss Army Man can’t quite hold itself together. Just when Hank drops into the depths of a truly momentous existential revelation, the film sweeps it away in an (admittedly glorious) a cappella-scored montage, preventing Dano from really marinating in any of his character development.
Nonetheless, there isn’t a dull moment to Swiss Army Man, and even during its rather muddled ending it stays true to its unique, sarcastically-serious style and its rigorous immaturity. Despite apparent walk-outs at its premiere, the press and industry crowd with whom I viewed the film seemed genuinely enthusiastic about this bizarre debut from the Daniels. I hope it will go down as a wacky start to a truly epic film career for the pair.