Directed by Daniel Scheinert, Dan Kwan
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Paul Dano, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Released on 30th September 2016
Welcome to Part Two of the Daniel Radcliffe Fortnight. Last week, he was an FBI agent infiltrating a network of white supremacists in Imperium. Now he’s a farting corpse in Swiss Army Man. And, with nearly three quarters of 2016 behind us, I can confidently say I’ve not seen another film quite like it this year – and I doubt that I will over the remaining months. Just to be clear, I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense. It’s uniquely wonderful.
Not that the premise would grab you immediately. Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on an island and about to hang himself when he spots a body washed up on the beach (Daniel Radcliffe). He befriends it, calls it Manny, talks to it and then discovers it can talk back to him. Not only that, but it has no end of other talents, all of which are invaluable in keeping him alive and even help him find his way home.
So, a talking corpse, then? Yes, and he makes all kinds of other sounds, resulting in the film attracting an unexpected amount of attention wherever it goes. It’s not often anybody, let alone Radcliffe, plays a farting corpse and manages to conjure up a line about friendship that involves getting rid of wind. “If my friend won’t fart in front of me, what else is he hiding?” But it’s the corpse’s talent for jet propulsion that gets both Hank and Manny off that desert island and onto the mainland, where they find evidence of humans. It’s litter, although it has its uses, and later there’s more. Water pipes, roads and cars. How they find their way through the forest has nothing to do with the bush skills we saw in Hunt For The Wilderpeople. It’s all down to Manny and his extraordinary talents. Swallowing gallons of rainwater so when Hank presses his chest, he becomes a gushing tap. Those farts help with lighting fires. And I won’t tell you which part of his anatomy acts as a compass – or how – but it’s remarkably effective. He has a multitude of uses, hence the title.
There’s no denying it’s a strange film, a fantasy which is blurred around the edges, so that you’re never sure if what you’re seeing is the product of Hank’s imagination or actually for real. And, despite the where the ending takes you, you’re still not sure. Not that you should worry. Just go with the flow – like they do – and respond. You’ll laugh, inwardly and out loud, and you’ll do it a lot. Not just at the fart jokes, but at Manny’s childlike and uninhibited view of the world. You’ll be moved by the relationship between the two and by Hank’s growing admission to himself and Manny that he’s never been good with other people. He’s awkward and doesn’t know how to express himself, but Manny gives him the courage he needs – because Hank is helping him to do the same. The film has a fragility, a vulnerability at its core that brings out your protective instincts: you simply want to scoop it up to keep it safe.
And that’s not just because of the story and the skill with which it’s told. It’s essentially a two hander between Dano and Radcliffe and neither of them put a toe wrong. Since coming to the fore in Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood, Dano has rarely taken a leading role, opting instead for character parts that stretch him as an actor. He’s superb here, peeling back the layers of somebody who has never found life easy. Radcliffe has the more demanding role, not just in terms of giving Manny a character: its physical side makes his performance so impressive. After being let down by a decidedly average screenplay last week in Imperium, this week is a personal triumph, demonstrating just how far he’s come as an actor and showing there’s still so much more to come. Even though he’s been around for years, he only hit 27 this summer.
Swiss Army Man won’t appeal to everybody and it’s not without its faults. There’s a sequence in the last half hour about the meaning of life that’s very much out of kilter: it’s completely leaden footed. But it’s a wrong note that lasts less than a minute and there’s so much more to relish in the film, especially the two sensational leads. It isn’t getting massive distribution, and it won’t win any big awards – but it will win hearts and minds and is odds-on to become a much loved cult classic. After all this year’s re-boots and sequels, at last we have proof that originality is not only alive in the film industry but still able to make you think, laugh, cry and do just about everything in between ………….. rather like Manny himself.
Swiss Army Man is released on Friday, 30 September and was reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 29 September.