The final utterance of “Swiss Army Man” is a succinct “What the f---?” I can think of few films in which the last line better encapsulates what came before.
Reactions vary widely, from praise at Sundance (where it won a directing award) to a screening where an acquaintance told me she walked out after 20 exasperating minutes.
If I understand the intentions of writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the film moved me profoundly. I’ll let you come up with your interpretation – or I’ll share mine privately, to avoid spoilers – but it’s a unique look inside a troubled mind.
That mind belongs to Hank (Paul Dano), who’s about to hang himself on a deserted beach at the beginning. We have seen him send out messages in little paper boats: “I don’t want to die here,” “Help me,” “I want to go home.” His long beard and ragged hair make us think of Tom Hanks in “Cast Away,” a misleading similarity hinted at in the trailer.
A corpse, which Hank dubs Manny, washes up on the beach. Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) suddenly begins to thrash, breaking wind ferociously and repeatedly. Soon Hank has climbed on Manny’s back to ride him like a jet ski. That’s just one of Manny’s abilities, as long as Hank manipulates him: He shoots projectiles from his pale throat, belches forth gallons of clean fresh water and breaks boards with karate chops.
Might Manny be a robot? An alien? A bizarre experiment from a secret government lab? A figment of Hank’s imagination, created to keep him from going mad? That question, at least, gets answered; some others don’t.
The Daniels, as they are billed in the credits, have never made a feature before but show impressive command of pacing and imagery. The characters often interact in a dreamlike way, exchanging personality traits or desires once Manny begins to speak.
Though silly bits of broad comedy make us laugh aloud, there’s something pathetically touching about the way these two need each other. Hank believes Manny’s abilities can bring him back to life (that is, society) in a physical way; Manny needs Hank to bring him back to “life” (that is, consciousness) in a metaphysical way.
Radcliffe continues to make daringly diverse choices as an actor, and he’s an asset to any film. Dano has often been typecast as whiners or weaklings; this role lets him explore a much wider range up to his final moments, the scene where it all came together for me.
Swiss Army Man
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe.
Writers-Directors: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert.
Length: 95 minutes.
Rating: R (language and sexual material).