When Hank (Paul Dano) slips a noose around his neck in the first shot of Swiss Army Man, he expects to see his whole life flash before his eyes. Instead, he sees nothing. Hank is a friendless man who's never lived. Never asked his crush on a date, never stood up to his dad, never done anything brave. He's too scared that people will think he's weird. Yet somehow, here he is shipwrecked on an island off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, scribbling pleas for rescue onto floating trash that sound like ones he could have offered back home: Help me. I'm so bored. I don't want to die alone.
Perhaps Hank's island is a metaphor for depression. Regardless, writer-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, a.k.a. the Daniels, insist that you scrap logic to trust them about what happens next. Because suddenly, Hank does see something: a dead man (Daniel Radcliffe) washed ashore on his beach. Very dead. But doing the very last human thing a dead body does: farting. Full-body, vibrating farts that churn the ocean like the engine of a jet-ski. And so, as the music soars — a mystical, tropical chant befitting a nature doc about baby dolphins — Hank takes off his noose, saddles the corpse, and rides to freedom on its flatulence. That's just the opening credits.
It's fair to call Swiss Army Man a 95-minute fart joke. The action climax is a fart. The emotional climax is a fart. When I first saw it at its Sundance premiere, I wrote it off as sublimely stupid. The second time, I realized it was stupidly sublime. The Daniels use body humor to make a powerful point: If everyone farts, why do we hide it? Why do we judge instead of empathize? Is there a more honest — if stinkier — way to live?
And so, as the men wash ashore on the mainland and Hank bushwhacks through a forest, lugging the body because it just doesn't seem right to leave him there, the film becomes about how we need other humans to survive. Radcliffe's corpse, now named Manny, is, as the title cheers, a multi-tool: Hank uses his limbs and gas to chop wood, light fires, store water, and shoot homemade bullets. He literally couldn't live without him. But when Radcliffe's corpse starts speaking, his brain wiped of every essential from boobs to Jurassic Park, we see that what Hank most needs is someone to talk to, someone who wants to hear his thoughts about how society works, even the stuff he barely knows himself.
Here, the film gets twee. Hank builds models of civilization from trash like pizza boxes and abandoned sofas to teach Manny about dating. Plotwise, this is because Manny's erect penis works like a compass. (Just roll with it.) But mostly, this playtime lets the Daniels show off their imagination. They're the dudebro Michel Gondrys, and you'll need to watch the film four times to take it all in — they love fast montages. What's bittersweet is how the moments of Hank's unexplored life are, to Manny, indescribably lovely. A normally banal commute becomes an adventure tour. Sighs Manny, "When I get back home, I'm going to ride the bus every day." This is the world that made Hank feel alone; now that he has a friend, he's aching to return.
Radcliffe is incredible. He has a dancer's control of his arms and neck, and a wrestler's willingness to fling himself into harm. He refuses to blink, and even when he talks, a froggy rasp, his mouth is crooked and his eyes are blank. As the film focuses in on his fantasies of wooing a gorgeous stranger (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) whose picture he sees on a dead cell phone, I groaned. Not another movie about a goon wooing an out-of-his-league girl.
But while Swiss Army Man's memorable moments include Hank dressing in drag so Manny can learn how to date, under the joke the Daniels insist that the real romance is between this sunburned sad sack and his chalk-white corpse, two lonely people who share a connection that can't be transplanted to a normal life. Sure, you can sit through Swiss Army Man and hear nothing but fratty fart jokes, but listen closely and this weird comedy has a strong, passionate pulse. "You think I look beautiful?" beams Hank, smoothing his red wig and smiling. "No one's ever said that." You don't have to believe that the dead really can talk to know that's what Hank needs to hear.