“Swiss Army Man” is either an intriguing looking into the deteriorating mind of a man driven to madness by loneliness or a sophomoric attempt at delivering a deep message on a constant wave of farts. An argument can be made for both.
The film opens with Hank (Paul Dano) at the end of his rope – literally. He’s been on a small deserted island so long that he’s finally decided to end his own life. His plan is stalled when Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), a rotting corpse, washes to shore.
Manny’s dead, but he is filled with so much gas that Hank can ride him like a jet ski. The pair zip away to another deserted shoreline that seems to offer more of a chance of rescue.
At the same time Hank is making his way to safety, Manny is showing signs of bodily activities. It can’t be said he’s coming to life, as his zombie-state never waivers. But, he does start talking – and never stops.
Manny not only becomes someone to whom Hank can talk, but like the multipurpose Swiss Army Knife, Manny can do anything from dispense water from his mouth to turn his very lively erection into a compass.
This is where that crossroads appears. The rest of the movie can be looked at like a one-man “Weekend at Bernie’s,” with Dano using the corpse as a meat puppet. Or, directors/writers Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert have fashioned a strangely bizarre look inside a broken mind.
Hank begins to fashion settings out of the trash and twigs he finds in the forest to recreate parts of his life. The biggest diorama is a city bus where Hank spent many hours pining over a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Hank tells Manny that the unrequited love is a part of his life, when in fact it is Hank’s way of admitting emotional blockages he would not discuss any other way.
The majority of the film is Hank and Manny making their way through the woods. That gives them plenty of time to talk about the meaning and demeaning of life. Manny’s lost all memory of life and Hank fills in the blanks with his own experiences.
As the movie slips between deep conversations and goofy woodland activities, it finds a sharp edge and then loses it. The focus of the movie changes so much that it is often feels like the morning after a massive nightmare when you try to remember all of the bits and pieces from the dream.
Dead man talking aside, there are clues to the mental state of Hank. From an abrupt change in his look to the location of his forest world, it suggests more than just a casual walk in the woods with a dead best buddy.
Dano’s performance is compelling. He’s the living part of this dead-namic duo, but in many ways his heart and emotions passed away years ago. Dano has shown an ability to play deep characters in films like “Ruby Sparks,” and the problems run deeper in “Swiss Army Man.”
Radcliffe gets more out of playing a corpse than a lot of actors get out of breathing roles. It’s a mark of a true artist who can play a character who farts so much and yet can still be taken seriously.
The fact that the movie rejects the idea of a passive observer makes it an interesting entertainment choice. It’ll be difficult to see this movie and not choose between it being a serious look at mental health and emotions in crisis or a total goof.
At least it’s engaging in that way.