'Swiss Army Man': Sundance Review

It's a gas, but not everyone will want in on the joke.

Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe star as, respectively, a suicidal castaway and his best friend, a flatulent corpse, in this surreal feature debut from Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively known as Daniels.

You wait ages for a movie with a good bear mauling, and two come along at once. Mere weeks after the opening of The Revenant, wacktacular curio Swiss Army Man premieres at Sundance, featuring a scene where Paul Dano (Love & Mercy) suffers an ursine attack. (The end credits reveal a real live bear was used at some point, which gives the film a bit of street-cred edge over Alejandro G. Inarritu’s all-CGI effort.) The mauling is immediately followed by a spectacular, pyrotechnic-gymnastic display by Daniel Radcliffe playing a revivified corpse with supernatural farting powers. The fact that this isn’t even the weirdest thing in the movie says a lot about this, by turns, enchanting, irritating, juvenile and yet oddly endearing feature debut from Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, a writing-directing duo who’ve adopted just “Daniels” as their professional moniker.

Conventional industry wisdom would take one look at the film’s logline — a lonely castaway (Dano) finds help on the arduous trek back to civilization with help from a surprisingly useful dead body (Radcliffe) — and run a mile. But in an age when videos for fairly obscure hip-hop artists can go viral just on the strength of their outlandish promo films alone, as was the case with Daniels-directed video for DJ Snake & Lil Jon’s "Turn Down for What," anything can happen. Swiss Army Man will probably make very little money theatrically. But over the long haul, there will be plenty of punters willing to watch it on Netflix (lavishly name-checked here, perhaps not coincidentally) and other platforms just for the curiosity value of seeing a movie where Harry Potter’s penis becomes a divining rod.

Paradoxically, the movie’s plot sounds worse — way worse — than it is when described secondhand. The story starts with Dano’s Hank trying to hang himself out of despair on a deserted island, when the washed up corpse (Radcliffe) distracts him with its copious and very noisy release of wind. On investigation, the gas excretion is so robust, the body can be used as a sort of human jet ski to transport Hank to a distant shore of land thick with redwood trees. (Humboldt in California served as a location, and viewers might speculate that the county’s most notorious cash crop may have served as inspiration for the film’s hallucinogenic imagery.)

Hank decides that being dead is no reason to leave a helpful new friend behind and drags the body along with him on his journey inland. Before long, he discovers that the corpse can be pumped for a miraculous stream of drinkable water and it regains some limited movement and the power of speech, introducing itself as Manny, a man who has lost all memory of his past.

A strange psychodrama unfolds between Manny and Hank, as the sight of a beautiful, mysterious woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) on Hank’s cellphone arouses Manny’s ardor, sets his heart beating fitfully and brings him closer to life. Using detritus left by campers past on the forest floor, Hank makes action figures, costumes and increasingly elaborate contraptions to help reanimate his friend more fully. Soon the homoerotic notes, which more mainstream bromances would keep buried down in the mix, come bubbling, quite literally, up to the surface as a queer sort of man-love blooms between them.

It’s entirely to the directors and the two lead actors’ credit that what sounds like a bunch of overextended body humor gags of the most juvenile variety evolve, by sheer repetitious attrition, into something bizarrely poetic and strangely touching. It certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, and the reliance on flashbacks and repeated shots conspire at times to make this feel like an attenuated short. But, at its best moments, Swiss Army Man evokes the dream worlds of whimsy and menace conjured by such filmmakers as Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Yorgos Lanthimos and Athina Rachel Tsangari, a superficially disparate bunch whose shared interest in slightly surreal, sometimes sci-fi inflected realism with strong melancholy undercurrents surely makes them founders of a movement as yet unnamed. Oddcore? Uncannycore? Magical Unrealism?

The Daniels’ first feature isn’t in the same league with the best work of the aforementioned, but audacity and style it does have in spades. Forming a counterpoint to all the bodily function knockabout, Dano and Radcliffe, both fully committing with delectable zeal, project a certain tragic fragility that adds heft to the proceedings. Clearly enjoying chemistry together, they would make a great Vladimir and Estragon for a revival of Waiting for Godot. Radcliffe is particularly deserving of praise with an astonishingly controlled physical performance, holding his face in an uneven rictus for long stretches of screen time and executing challenging contortions. It may set a new high bar in the annals of corpse acting.

On the technical front, reedy, minor-key keening from Andy Hull and Robert McDowell’s beat combo Manchester Orchestra (Daniels made an admired video for their song "Simple Math" a few years back) boosts the alt-indie mood, while Larkin Seiple’s hyper-crisp lens work on an Alexa rig enhances the oneiric atmosphere throughout.

Production companies: Cold Iron Pictures, Tadmor Astrakhan Film SB, Blackbird
Cast: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Antonia Ribeiro, Timothy Eulich, Richard Gross, Marika Casteel, Andy Hull, Aaron Marshall, Shane Carruth
Directors-screenwriters: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Producers: Lawrence Inglee, Jonathan Wang, Miranda Bailey, Amanda Marshall
Director of photography: Larkin Seiple
Editor: Matt Hannam
Production designer: Jason Kisvarday
Costume designer: Carolina Sapina
Music: Manchester Orchestra
Casting: Nina Henninger

No rating, 97 minutes