DIRECTED BY: Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert)
FEATURING: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe
PLOT: Hank (Dano), on the brink of suicide after being stranded on a deserted island, discovers a flatulent corpse (Radcliffe) washed ashore. Investigating, he finds it is endowed with many with life-saving powers, and eventually develops the power of speech. Naming the corpse “Manny,” the two forge an unlikely alliance as Hank tries to find his way home and Manny tries to remember what it’s like to be alive.
- The film is the first feature from writing/directing team “Daniels,” Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. They met at Emerson College in 2008, and soon collaborated on short films and music videos that combined Kwan’s background in design and animation with Scheinert’s background in comedy and theater.
- Kwan came up with the idea as a joke, and the two aspiring filmmakers would pitch it during studio meetings for fun until they were eventually encouraged to actually develop it into something. The script came together in 2014 at the Sundance Labs, where was one of their advisors. (According to Scheinert, he wanted them to somehow incorporate the Gilligan’s Island theme song.)
- Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe were the first actors to whom they sent the script. Both agreed immediately, after which Daniels rewrote the parts to be more suited to the actors.
- Daniel Radcliffe insisted on performing most of his own stunts.
- Daniels’ Grammy-nominated music video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What” single was a testing ground for the idea of an independent-minded penis later used in Swiss Army Man. Daniel Kwan himself is the main dancer in the video.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Hank’s descriptions of women and sex (along with help from an alluring advertisement) provoke a sudden erection in Manny, but it soon becomes clear that his penis is actually pointing their way home. The erratic movements of Daniel Radcliffe’s member as it jerks within his pants towards a nearby pathway create an image I certainly won’t forget any time soon.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Corpse jet ski; DIY bus ride; fiery (and propulsive) bear escape
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: With a farting, hacking, spewing, singing, dancing, flying corpse front and center of its survival tale, Swiss Army Man is bizarre enough for the List based on premise alone. But perhaps the weirdest thing of all is the film’s complete sincerity, which despite all its high-concept groundwork makes its audience care deeply about its central characters.
Trailer for Swiss Army Man
COMMENTS: It is always easier to accept the strange when we are alone, when there is no social pressure to be reasonable or logical, when we can allow ourselves to think, just for a second, that maybe that unexplained feeling or movement is a ghost drifting through our house or a glitch in the Matrix. Swiss Army Man, the debut feature from filmmaking team “Daniels” (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), revels in the idea that in isolation people are free to be as weird as they are, and that maybe that is a beautiful thing. Lost, alone, scared, unsure, Hank is ready to end it all. In his isolated state, he not only finds himself unreservedly opening up to a random corpse (known later as “Manny”), but he accepts its magical properties almost immediately because he has no reason not to. He doesn’t seem to care if this crazy experience is all in his head or not, so the audience doesn’t need to, either.
Hank discovers more and more uses for Manny as the story moves along—he starts fires with spark-inducing fingers, acts as a fountain after collecting rain water overnight, moves across the water as a fart-powered motorboat, fires rocks like bullets, and points the way with his penis-compass, among other things. However, the surprise of the film is that it isn’t really about its titular character’s multi-purpose nature, but more about the strange, surprisingly moving relationship that develops between the two men. Manny is a blank slate, with no memory and no knowledge of the outside world, so much of the dialogue is Hank answering never-ending questions about life, love, work, and bodily functions. While funny and ludicrous on the surface level, their conversations are a balm for Hank’s deep-seated loneliness and self-pity, a way for him to get out of his own head and rediscover joys (and frustrations) he’d forgotten.
Whether or not Hank is hallucinating is never especially relevant. His connection to Manny is key to his survival, allowing him to retain his humanity as he struggles through a strange, trash-riddled wilderness. They rely on one another so completely that their symbiotic relationship mirrors a romantic one, and despite the impossibility of their situation it is utterly believable. They begin to enact an imaginary love story, once removed, with Hank playing the part of a semi-fictional woman so that Manny can learn how male/female romance works; but as time goes on, the fantasy blurs into reality. The excuse is that falling in love with Hank’s “Sarah” character is “bringing Manny back to life,” and he gradually gains more abilities and more personality as the charade continues (with Hank maintaining an uber-thrift drag look). But in a movie starring a magical farting corpse, Sarah’s character is the least believable part—presumably an intentional dig at the manic pixie dream girl myth. She is an excuse for Hank to create a wondrous, illusionary world just for him and Manny, a DIY playland with parties, bus rides, dinner dates, wacky sing-a-longs, and (in an adorable meta-moment) homemade movies. Most Robinson Crusoe-esque survival stories are focused on man versus nature, or on one person finding their inner strength and coming to terms with their solitude. The Daniels use the familiar deserted-island foundation and twist its conventions into something unique.
Ultimately, Swiss Army Man is an exercise in contradictions. It combines thoughtful, often elegant visuals—a cool blue/green color palette, engrossing camerawork, lively editing, soft lighting—and contrasts them to low-brow visual and audio gags, with the ever-present fart and dick jokes driving a lot of the humor. It gives us an inventive, gorgeous score from Andy Hull and Robert McDowell and overlays it with nonsense words and goofy lyrics sung by Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe (and, incidentally, probably the most haunting rendition of “Cotton Eye Joe” you’re ever likely to hear). It reveals many of the terrifying realities of survival in the forest while eliciting comedy and wonder out of its fantasy elements. Much of its dialogue centers around a heterosexual love story but it actually works better as a homosexual one. What makes the film work so well is that everyone involved seems to accept these contradictions wholeheartedly, knowing that something can be beautiful and disgusting and hilarious and bizarre and emotionally affecting all at once, because weirdness is okay, even after you’ve left the isolation of the woods and reentered the real world.
G. Smalley adds: Swiss Army Man had almost no advance publicity and blindsided everyone, us included. It was one of the most buzzed about (if not praised) films at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, where it quickly became notorious as “the Daniel Radcliffe farting corpse movie.” Initial reviews from the film’s premiere claimed that the feature sent audiences heading to the exits in droves, though later commentators poo-poohed reports of scored of walkouts. They do seem questionable, because unless you have a very low tolerance for toilet humor, Swiss Army Man‘s sensibility is more sweet than foul. The scatological conceit is more than a cheap joke; Manny, having forgotten the rules of decorum in his postmortem haze, is legitimately perplexed by Hank’s many hang-ups about bodily functions and sex. The things that civilize us may be the very things that divide us, the film suggests. Besides, nothing can ease the tension in a grim situation more than cutting one loose. Radcliffe had been searching for a weird, arty vehicle to separate himself from his Harry Potter persona; Horns was a near-miss, but here he scores a direct hit to the absurdist bone. He’s great, making us care for a character whose range of expression is necessarily rigid. And we haven’t even mentioned the fact that things get even weirder at the very end… although some critics see this final mini-explosion of surrealism as a symptom of Daniels’ failure to figure out a way to satisfactorily wrap up their insane scenario.
I will demur slightly to Alex’s choice of indelible image; I would have picked the jet ski escape.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Weird and wonderful, disgusting and demented, Swiss Army Man’ is about how one man’s dead body nudges another man back to life. Impossible to categorize, this stunningly original mix of the macabre and the magical combines comedy, tragedy, fantasy and love story into an utterly singular package that’s beholden to no rules but its own.”–Jeanette Catsoulis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“…it’s safe to say the Daniels have hit upon a decidedly unconventional metaphor for the cloudy, socially stunted turbulence of lonely nerds trying to figure out a way to engage with the world. But even with all the design-rich invention and admirably committed weirdness on display in ‘Swiss Army Man,’ we’re still in the land of immature males, poor-me feelings and superpowers.”–Robert Abele, Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)
Swiss Army Man – official site – Along with the trailer and links to buy the film and the soundtrack, this site allows you to manipulate a digital corpse to unlock scenes from the film
IMDB LINK: Swiss Army Man (2016)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Real-Life Bears and Advice From Tarantino: 7 Of The Craziest Stories From Behind The Scenes Of ‘Swiss Army Man’ – Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn interviews Daniels
Meet the Daniels, out-there directors of Daniel Radcliffe-Paul Dano buddy-corpse movie ‘Swiss Army Man’ – LA Times‘ profile of the directors
How the Daniels Made ‘Swiss Army Man’ (a.k.a. the Daniel Radcliffe Farting Corpse Movie) – mental_floss‘s Erin McCarthy describes the production from conception to special effects
Swiss Army Man directors: how we accidentally made a gay necrophilia movie – A great profile with a great headline, from The Telegraph
Daniel Radcliffe on Kissing Paul Dano in ‘Super Intimate’ Swiss Army Man Scenes – People Magazine video interview with Radcliffe
Daniel Radcliffe on Swiss Army Man, acting and directing – Transcript of a Q&A with Radcliffe after a Picturehouse Central screening of Swiss Army Man
DVD INFO: Lionsgate released the film on both DVD (buy) and Blu-ray (buy) in October 2016. Features include an audio commentary with writer/directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, production designer Jason Kisvarnay, and sound mixer Brent Kiser; behind the scenes footage and deleted scenes; a “Making Manny” featurette about the Manny dummy; and a Q&A with the Daniels at the Dolby Institute, moderated by Glenn Kiser.
Swiss Army Man is also available to buy or rent digitally on demand.
(Although we would have gotten to it anyway, this movie was nominated for review by reader “AlgusUnderdunk,” who advised us “Just saw this trailer and knew it had to have a home here…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here).