"Swiss Army Man" is a beautiful conundrum, an outlandish but achingly honest rumination on what it means to emotionally live and what it means to physiologically pass on. There is plenty to be discussed of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert's unusually innovative feature writing-directing debut, but one point is undeniable: with just a single film under their belt, they have blazed a trail all their own. Pure of vision and pitch-perfect in their oft-radical tone, this auteur pair have made something that will alienate the majority of mainstream moviegoers while sending cinephiles with open-minded tastes into a state of sensory nirvana. One wrong move, and Kwan and Scheinert's creative tightrope could have irreparably broken. At worst, the project might have turned into a massive, albeit ambitious, wipeout, the kind spoken about for years to come as simply bad, bad, bad. "Swiss Army Man" is neither bad nor a wipeout, taking bold risks and paying off in profound, vital spades.
Stranded on a deserted island off the Pacific with hope dwindling to a faded ember, Hank (Paul Dano) has chosen to take his own life. Ready to hang himself in the mouth of a cave, something catches his eye: a young man's body, freshly washed ashore. The corpse, named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), appears to be very much dead, his voracious flatulence the last remaining bodily function bridging the gap between the worlds of the living and deceased. They are an unlikely match, to be sure, but Hank clings to his new friend. With a rekindled desire to survive, he hopes the otherworldly superpowers Manny possesses will help to guide him home.
When "Swiss Army Man" premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, it made literal waves: namely, the ones rushing behind Hank as he jet-skis on top of Manny's corpse, propelled by the dead man's explosive gas. This early sequence is off the charts in its absolute fearlessness, but it proves to be a footnote in comparison to what follows. Yes, there is a ghoulishly whimsical, unapologetically juvenile sense of humor at play, but what is so exceptional about this barrier-busting film is its blindsiding heart. Accompanied by composers Andy Hull and Robert McDowell's folksy, hum-worthy compositions and two ingenious soundtrack cuesJohn Williams' "Jurassic Park" theme and a slowed-down lullaby arrangement of "Cotton Eye Joe"Hank and Manny experience a soulful connection and a common ground of regret. Hank longs to have done things differently, to have taken chances and loved harder. With no clues to his life before he died save for the photos of an attractive woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) on his low-battery cell phone, Manny simply wishes he could have his memories back. How they meet in the middle, making do with what is before them and finding a certain contentment in their solitude, is gracefully poignant.
Onscreen by themselves for most of the running time, Paul Dano (2015's "Love and Mercy
") and Daniel Radcliffe (2016's "Now You See Me 2
") share a chemistry stronger than most movie romances. Dano sees Hank as a beaten-down guy who never acted on his impulses, his lack of self-confidence constantly holding him back. Now, at the make-or-break precipice between fighting to go on and succumbing to starvation, he finds a drive he didn't know he had and a special companionship that is only his. Dano's performance is great, and so is Radcliffe's indescribable work as Manny. Watching Radcliffe play someone who is vacant yet communicative, immobile yet fluid in his physicality, is a sight to behold. That he is able to bring depth and personality to a cadaver on top of everything else is revelatory.
To merely describe the pop-infused existentialism of "Swiss Army Man" is to not properly do it justice. This is a work to experience and lavish over in all its gloriously eccentric singularity. Aided by Larkin Seiple's (2015's "Cop Car
") indelible lensing, writer-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert find a fanciful, wondrous scope to Hank and Manny's rustic surroundings and dexterous imagination. As the story develops, a natural endpoint to where these two souls are headed appears to be taking shape, one foretold in its very first scene and lending itself to a finale of gravitas and poeticism. Instead, the film reaches a different destination both unforeseen and ambiguous, its final ten minutes forcing one to reassess what has just been seen while viewing its particulars in a new light. It is the one step that doesn't quite satisfy the way the previous 80 minutes do, and yet, by that point, the picture has earned any conclusion Kwan and Scheinert see fit. "Swiss Army Man" is delirious, thoughtful and, most of all, one of a kind. Without question, there will be no other film released in 2016 even remotely like this one.