Sundance Review: ‘Swiss Army Man’ is a treat

Published 11:49 am Saturday, February 6, 2016

by Lauren Bradshaw

I just saw Paul Dano ride Daniel Radcliffe through the ocean like a jet ski, using Radcliffe’s farts as propulsion. That sentence illustrates the absolute absurdity and hilarity of “Swiss Army Man,” directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. This movie is honestly the strangest movie I have ever seen, but also incredibly original and creative. It perfectly embodies risky independent cinema and is just the kind of movie you expect to see at Sundance.

“Swiss Army Man” is “Weekend at Bernie’s” meets “Castaway.” Only instead of “Wilson,” we now have a corpse come to life named “Manny.” But let’s start at the beginning … you know, before Dano rides around on a farting jet ski. Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on a desert island, about to commit suicide because he is so lonely. All of a sudden, he sees a dead body that has washed up onshore. At first, Hank is disappointed that his one hope for rescue/accompaniment is dead. But all of a sudden, the body starts … farting. These farts start to propel the body into the surf, and not to miss an opportunity for rescue, Hank jumps on for a ride.

The gas propels the two men to a new location, which seems to be a forest along the coast of the United States. Now Hank has to make his way through the forest, back to civilization with the help of Manny, who eventually starts to speak… though it’s a bit like the Tin Man before Dorothy squirts oil in his jaw. Whatever Hank needs most, he is able to get using Manny’s body (a la the title “Swiss Army Man”). For instance, if he needs a fire, Manny can strike his hands together and make a spark. Ahem. I won’t go into Manny’s way of creating a compass. But will Manny’s utility stay that way forever and will the two friends find their way home? More importantly, what will “home” think of a man whose best friend is a corpse?

In case you couldn’t already tell, this script is absurd and requires the actors to take tremendous risks. I can’t imagine reading this script and agreeing to sign on, because it really is a tough sell — both to a distributor and audiences. As seen at the few public screenings the film has had so far, audiences are either going to go with the film and embrace its lunacy, or despise it. So major props to Dano and Radcliffe for seeing the brilliance in this. For about the first 1/3 of the film, Radcliffe lies completely motionless. And even when he does finally start to speak and gain a little bit of his motor skills, his mannerisms are an interesting take on a cross between the Tin Man and Frankenstein’s monster. Perhaps he took some notes as he filmed “Victor Frankenstein.” And Dano, like always, brings the emotional center of the film, showing how it feels to live a life of solitude, both on the island and off. He is always great in every film, and chooses such interesting roles. Who would have thought that the follow up to “Love and Mercy” would be such an oddball film, but here we are.

Along with the fantastic performances from Dano and Radcliffe, the production design for the film was top-notch. So much of the story lives in Hank’s mind as he tries to explain to Manny what it is to be human and what it is to love. The intricate props and scenery add to the film’s creativity, and it’s interesting to see how much the prop master was able to do with items found in the forest.

“Swiss Army Man” is a story that indulges the imagination and is a treat for any movie-goer looking for creative storytelling. It doesn’t surprise me that this film has been so divisive for Sundance audiences, but that is the fun of it. Big risk, big reward. And I think “Swiss Army Man” deserves a big golden trophy.

My Review: B+

Lauren Bradshaw is a lover of all movies, even the bad ones. Follow her on twitter@flickchickdc and her blog