Underneath its nervy premise, off-kilter jokes, and bold stylistic flourishes, Swiss Army Man is a movie about being scared. A comedy featuring a shipwreck survivor and the corpse he befriends, this defiantly loopy indie is worth saluting for the risks it takes, as well as for the gutsiness of its central performances. But the longer you stick with Swiss Army Man, the more its commendable audaciousness starts to succumb to the story’s underlying triteness. A lot of clever ideas have been assembled to remind us, once again, that dudes have feelings, too.
Swiss Army Man is the feature debut of the music-video team Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who collectively go by Daniels. Probably best known for their work on DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What,” the duo bring the same hyper-real, effects-aided tone to Swiss Army Man, which they also wrote.
The screwy, irreverent attitude starts early. A suicidal castaway named Hank (Paul Dano) considers ending his life when a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe) washes onto the beach, giving the lonely young man his first companion. After discovering the corpse is very gassy, Hank uses it as a jet ski, escaping the tropical island and landing on the California coast. After they arrive on the mainland, the dead body comes to life, calling himself Manny and setting in motion a bizarre journey in which these two men must work their way through a dense forest to find help.
Once Manny starts interacting with Hank, there’s an instant uncertainty about whether Hank is merely hallucinating his unlikely companion. It’s to the credit of this playfully ambitious film that it never bases its suspense on the question “Is Manny dead or not?” Instead, Dano and Radcliffe play their roles straight, which is more impressive from Radcliffe considering that Manny, because his brain and heart had stopped, remembers nothing of his life or even how human beings act. This could lead to a painfully mannered performance, but Radcliffe plays this sweet simpleton with such unfussy conviction that his primitive speech and zombie-like eyes are both funny and oddly poignant.
The film flaunts plenty of flatulence jokes and boner humor, but its becomes clear the puerile gags are actually a feint to lighten the movie’s existential angst about death, the nature of existence, and the need to make a connection with another person. For most of the film, the two characters stumble through the woods, Hank carrying Manny and explaining to him basic concepts like food, transportation, and love. Through flashbacks, we see that Hank used to ride the bus every day, transfixed by a pretty stranger (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The fact that neither the movie nor Hank wants to explain the meaning behind these flashbacks is a giveaway that his journey back to civilization is, in a more cosmic sense, a metaphysical quest to resolve some past psychic wound.
Swiss Army Man teases the mystery of that quest, but the clues are everywhere. Manny’s questions about why people fall in love, how friendships work, or why men are embarrassed about masturbation—they’re all issues plaguing Hank. His new pal just serves as a mouthpiece for those anxieties. Manny and Hank are presented as two halves of one person: The corpse naively and unashamedly wonders about human nature, while the shipwrecked soul keeps trying to shoot him down, letting his fears influence every decision.
In the face of such an absurd premise, Dano and Radcliffe don’t go for laughs; we’re meant to take seriously their sad-sack characters’ minor hang-ups. Hank and Manny are both damaged man-children—Manny because he died, and Hank because he’s emotionally stunted. Swiss Army Man puts them in what appears to be a mythic, primeval forest in which their elemental selves begin to emerge. It’s telling that, in this secluded world, there are no women: As much as Winstead’s stranger factors into the film’s finale, Swiss Army Man is a male love story. Hank and Manny, unable to articulate their feelings for the opposite sex, find themselves far more comfortable bonding over their shared inadequacies.
Utilizing some of the same gravity-defying camera tricks they perfected in “Turn Down for What,” Daniels, who are both in their late twenties, are already masters of the fantastical, emotionally-wrought montage. The characters hurtle through the sky, tumble in balletic slow motion back towards earth, zip across the ocean, and develop bizarre talents while training in the forest; the film’s defiance of physics adds an otherworldly, folkloric tinge to the proceedings.
All this allows the filmmakers a safe space to work through age-old issues about the dangers of being a sensitive guy in a mean world. Dano’s fragility has been his secret weapon in films like Love & Mercy and Ruby Sparks, and he makes Hank a likable wimp who’s terrified by pretty girls, consumed by apprehension about his judgmental father, and generally disaffected by the maddening vagaries of life. The actor brings real yearning to the story, his baby face communicating Hank’s brittle, sensitive unraveling.
But rather than challenge those insecurities, Swiss Army Man too often coddles them. The movie’s surreal framework ultimately proves too precocious and cutesy. When Winstead’s character finally emerges, it’s practically anticlimactic. Fascinated by its male heroes’ feelings, Swiss Army Man doesn’t have much compassion or curiosity for anyone else. Throughout their odyssey, Manny looks to Hank for guidance about how to behave in the world, but the film’s dark joke is that, really, Hank is as clueless as the corpse. Swiss Army Man’s nagging limitation is that the filmmakers don’t have many insights themselves—they’re just as insulated as their characters—and all the clever flourishes end up being their own kind of insecurity.