Flatulence is a key element of “Swiss Army Man,” but the film isn’t exactly a comedy.
The feature debut of writer-directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan doesn’t really know what it wants to be. There’s a running theme of farts and erections, but also one of loneliness and alienation. There are elements of magical realism and of a buddy road adventure. And lots of disturbing things happen to a dead body.
Ultimately a sad tale about the deep yearning for connection, “Swiss Army Man” is so tonally erratic that it leaves the viewer more unsettled than actually moved.
Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on an island and about to take his own life when a body (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on shore. It’s a young man’s corpse, and it is farting. Hank climbs aboard the corpse and rides it across the sea, somehow propelled by the constant flatulence.
It’s outrageous and bizarre, and it leaves Hank newly inspired to find his way home.
Hank brings the corpse along as he treks through the woods of a new found land, looking for civilization. The more time he spends with the body, the more he discovers its practicalities in the wilderness. He uses it as a water catcher during a rainstorm, pressing on the corpse’s belly to release water from its mouth like a human fountain. It’s pretty gross, but mild compared to what’s to come.
Hank befriends the body and eventually, it starts talking. He says his name is Manny. He’s an innocent, asking questions about life and love. Hank explains the world to him, revealing his own lonely life story in the process. His mother died when he was young; his father is dismissive and verbally abusive. Hank dreamed of a life full of love but was too scared to go after it.
As in “Love & Mercy” and “There Will Be Blood,” Dano is a superb actor who conveys confidence and vulnerability simultaneously. His Hank is strange and sad, but also tender and sweet.
Hank doesn’t just tell Manny about the life they’re missing, he shows it to him, building a makeshift movie theater out of garbage he finds in the forest. Hank crafts a pretend bus the same way, moving magazine pictures outside what would be the window to simulate for Manny the riding experience. He strings Manny up like a marionette so they can dance together.
But Hank also uses Manny’s body as a perverse multi-use tool (as in Swiss Army knife.) The corpse becomes a crossbow, a razor, a wood-chopper, a gun, a lighter and an erection-based compass.
Radcliffe is game. Though limited by his character’s deadness, he keeps Manny lively with expressive eyes and mostly limp body language.
With only two characters onscreen for most of the film, casting capable actors was critical. The production design is another star: “Swiss Army Man” is set in wild, green landscapes, and the art department built all of Hank’s intricate garbage creations from found materials in the forest.
Beyond Hank’s desperation, the line between fantasy and reality isn’t entirely clear. Is postmortem, ad nauseam farting even possible? Who even thought about that before?
The filmmakers have said they came up with the concept for “Swiss Army Man” after imagining the opening scene of Hank riding a gas-powered Manny across the sea. They wanted to use the idea of people hiding flatulence as a metaphor for hiding emotions.
But farts aren’t feelings. “Swiss Army Man” hints at something deeper that it doesn’t quite reach.
Swiss Army Man
☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Directors: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Running time: 1:35.
Rated: R for language and sexual material.