Every year, there’s one movie that touches me like few others ever have and no other film that year does. A film that induces a reaction that can only be called something close to religious ecstasy, a flashing neon sign from the heavens of why I do what I do and love what I love.
Once it was a romance between a man and his operating system, one of the most poignant meditations on love and isolation. Once it was a thrilling tale of rebellion and hope in a post-apocalyptic world gone mad.
This time, it’s a farting corpse (Daniel Radcliffe. That’s right, Harry Potter) saving a man, Hank (Paul Dano), stranded alone on an island.
I’m not fucking with you. Really.
Okay, there’s a chance this film won’t be for everyone. Some people aren’t human, and that’s fine.
Swiss Army Man is a bizarre, vulgar, strange journey of an experience that has a surface that’s hard to get past, I’ll admit. Directors Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) have created something that’s impossible to summarize and difficult to grasp onto.
But let me implore you to pry under the film’s surface, to pry under the inherent eye-rolling or revulsion you may be feeling when you read the premise. To be fair, it’s all there. Every fart joke and boner joke and inherently weird or off-putting bit of play with a Paul Dano performance that’s slowly unraveling at the edges and a very-game Daniel Radcliffe getting dragged around.
The Daniels have used this inherently strange premise to cut deep into the heart of the experience of being human, and not just in the way that we usually say that, by meaning that a film flatters us and shows us an indomitable human experience or flattering human experience, something that makes us feel as graceful and beautiful creatures.
Rather, the Daniels go into Swiss Army Man with the radical premise that the most human action is vulgarity. The guards that we let down when we let the rules of society drop away and indulge in our baser urges. When we engage in sex and farting and being weird, that’s when we’re our most human, and when we reveal the most about who we are.
The trick for that premise is a sure, steady, and guiding hand at the directorial wheel and Swiss Army Man is blessed with the most exciting and talented directorial steering I’ve seen since…hell…since Mad Max: Fury Road. The guys who brought you this
bring that same reckless irreverence welded now with a surprisingly beautiful visual eye. Seriously, this film is gorgeous. Not just in the delicately awestruck way that it films the nature it takes place in, but in the simple genius of their control of the image. The way it reveals the little oddities, the way it dips in and out of magical realism, the way it never seems to be questioning the events on screen, content to discover and look upon it with wonder.
I know how it sounds. Swiss Army Man seems primed for a hipster detachment, engaging with its subject through irony. But the Daniels know irony is the least interesting way of engagement, and instead bore full into the premise and into the characters. There’s an understanding and a love. Even if they’re weird, it’s the world that doesn’t understand them, we as the audience do.
It helps too that our two actors are more than game. Dano is one of our best young punchable faces, giving characters that should be and even are hateable a certain relatability and heart. Hank is a man of deep damage, and the fact is that the film may question if he deserves what he has been done to him, but Dano knows how to cut through and make you care.
But let’s talk about Radcliffe. He’s the flatulent corpse, name of Manny, at the center of it all, and holy shit. This is his defining role as an actor, at least for his talent, even if Harry Potter will forever overshadow in popularity.
Radcliffe is so committed to this role, especially when you know that he did everything in the film but that which was physically impossible. He bares everything and allows himself to be poked and prodded and pulled and pushed, and yet still feels completely in control of himself. He’s so innocent in this role, playing Manny essentially as a child coming to learn the world. It’s just the kind of thing you have to see to believe and you still can’t believe it.
The two intertwine so perfectly. There’s such a joy in their interactions, a palpable sense that someone really did come to care for the corpse, and the Daniels discover such cinematic delight in their journey.
That’s what comes to mind when I think Swiss Army Man. Joy. Sheer joy. I can’t remember the last time I was crying laughing in theater like I was with this one. It’s simple humor, but it’s so much fun, it’s so well-done. I can’t remember the last time I felt so deeply emotional about a corpse and the broken man who loves him. There’s a few times I remember watching a movie with a smile so wide, and it’s for many movies I count among the greatest.
Swiss Army Man could be said to be about so much, but at its core, it’s about being human. It reflects what it means to love and lose and hope and fail and it says it in a way that actually feels as though I’ve never heard anyone tell me about these things before. It’s sheer, pure cinematic discovery in a time where so few things feel infused with this much joy or creativity.