Daniel Radcliffe’s career has taken an interesting turn ever since Harry Potter‘s gratifying final chapter. James Watkins’ 2012 horror flick The Woman in Black arrived almost immediately after Deathly Hallows – Part 2 and served as a distinct departure from the Wizarding World we associated Radcliffe with. He starred as Allen Ginsberg in John Krokidas’ biographical drama Kill Your Darlings in 2013 and as a boy quipped with the devil’s horns in Alexandre Aja’s aptly titled Horns in 2014. And now he stars alongside Paul Dano in Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Swiss Army Man. Submitted for the U.S. Dramatic Competition, this jarring comedy left many viewers on Friday’s showing with no other choice but to walk out. I hadn’t planned on seeing this, and to be completely honest, it flew under my radar. But when I saw The Telegraph‘s headline, “Daniel Radcliffe plays a farting corpse – and Sundance audiences walk out,” I had to add this to my slate, because not-so-secretly I’m still a 12-year-old film nerd.
So what’s Swiss Army Man – a project that’s been touted as the strangest movie to ever land at Sundance – all about? Well, I’m not exactly sure. On the surface, it’s about a guy named Hank (Dano), who after spending an unknown number of days stranded on an island, makes an attempt to end his life. But before committing his final act, he sees an unexpected corpse (Radcliffe) wash up on shore. Unsure of whether or not this mysterious body is alive, Hank frees himself and comes to his aid. Dude is dead, but his body manages to produce a lot of gas….and I’m talking about a lot of fucking gas. So much in fact, that Hank rides this corpse like a jet ski back to the mainland. This fart-tastic spectacle all happens in the first act. I’m not even kidding.
Overcome with gratitude, Hank carries Manny’s (a name he’s eventually given) continuously deflating corpse through the wilderness. After spending a night in a cave, Manny starts to exhibit signs of life, including the curious ability to speak. What follows is a budding relationship between the two, with Hank reteaching Manny the various aspects of life: emotion, thoughts, love, sex and masturbation, and how to fart discretely. As the two work their way back to civilization, Manny’s decrepit body proves useful once again, serving as a handy canteen and a powerful wood chopper, hence the title Swiss Army Man. Oh yeah, and Manny’s erection serves as his “special compass” that guides them home. I know guys, this all sounds utterly absurd.
At its core, Swiss Army Man is a deeply juvenile film, but if you look beyond the inherent 90-minute fart joke, it’s encapsulated by a genuine exploration of existentialism. Hank’s precarious situation in the opening scene stems from his inability to find connections with other people, including his estranged father. His relationship with Manny is a reflection of all the ways Hank wishes he could live. At the core of their quest to get home, is a girl named Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). A girl that neither man has met, but they both have a deep infatuation for. They spend a considerable amount of time using trash, constructing their own world by recreating normal activities like riding a bus or partying with friends, with Hank often dressed as Sarah in hopes of stimulating Manny’s memory.
If you’re scratching your head while reading this, I don’t blame you. But let me try to explain it this way, Swiss Army Man is a potent mix of Cast Away, Weekend At Bernie’s, The Revenant (yes, there is a bear attack) and Where the Wild Things Are. For the few that will watch, I won’t spoil much, but Hank’s adventure with Manny is inspired from the former’s fragile imagination.
I understand why people left. To be fair, the walkouts occurred during a public screening and this is not the sort of story that’ll bode well with the masses. I don’t think the Daniels are concerned with commercial success. Swiss Army Man will leave you with a series of thoughts: What the hell did I just watch? Why is this repulsive narrative so extraordinarily endearing? How much money did Daniel Radcliffe make from Harry Potter?
The directors and their minimal cast tackle basic human functions that we’d all rather ignore, while dropping their characters in beautiful landscapes. It’s oddly refreshing, and if you’re willing to look past the absurdity, you might just let go of reality and have a hearty laugh.
Photo Credit: Collider