The Daniels (Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert) a music video directing duo, who unleashed the internet breaking visuals for DJ Snake’s Turn Down For What back in 2014, make their feature debut with this bromantic comedy between a marooned millennial and a farting corpse, hardly the easiest sell to a movie going safe-spacer. And it’s true, when Swiss Army Man, the hottest ticket at last year’s Sundance Film Festival unspooled before the sold-out audiences’ eyes, many just got up and left, totally disgusted. Okay, let’s be clear here, this isn’t Robert Zemeckis’s Castaway that’s for sure, but it ain’t Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film either. Beneath their scatological obsessed humour, the Daniels have crafted a bizarre little indy film about isolation and sexual shame, which at times is beautifully lo-fi and tender.
We meet Hank (Paul Dano) a shaggy haired boy-man on a tiny wind swept island off the coast of California. He’s lost, alone, and about to hang himself, when the body of a young man (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore. Oh my god! Hank’s salvation has arrived, friendship and rescue awaits. But all hope quickly fades away as the man turns out to be stone cold dead. End of story, right…? Well, no. A big ol’ fart from the cadaver’s bum cheeks saves the day; over the anthemic and looping melody of Andy Hull and Robert McDowell’s Intro Song (featuring Paul Dano), Hank rides the methane powered corpse like a jet-ski off the island towards the mainland. With this opening scene, The Daniels’ lay out their unique brand of magical realism meets off-beat macabre body humour, which isn’t for the straight-faced or faint of heart.
Together, Hank and the newly named corpse, Manny, must traverse the wilderness and find their way back to civilisation, using Manny’s body; a Swiss Army Knife of super-powered limbs and orifices. And thus begins a fun and quirky boy’s own adventure, as Manny slowly regains his ability to talk and think. Hank takes it upon himself to teach Manny about life, but with some telling omissions, which hint at a much darker and troubled past.
In the lush and serene setting of a forest, seemingly untouched by man, Hank hums the theme of Jurassic Park, millennials’ blockbuster of choice, and funnily enough directed by Steven Spielberg, the man who arguably made the first with Jaws; how’s that for career longevity. But it’s the handmade and lo-fi quality of fellow music video director Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind that comes to mind. Especially in the scene where Hank makes a city bus out of junk and tree branches to re-enact the cute meet with Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the story’s love interest, haunting Hank’s phone. The outsider art and jerry-rigged vibe permeates every location and prop, clearly production designer Jason Kisvarday had a lot of fun crafting the film’s almost “derelicte” look; which is beautifully photographed in rich and dreamy detail by cinematographer Larkin Seiple. And that might give the naysayers some pause for thought, when has a ninety minute long fart joke ever looked this vibrant on film…?
Anyone familiar with American gross-out comedies of the 1990s and beyond, Dumb and Dumber, et al, will have a good idea of how far taste and decency has been pushed within recent memory. So, it’s hard to fathom why this film caused so much outrage on release, maybe dick jokes, cross-dressing, exploding raccoons, and farting bottoms isn’t your thing. Fine. But that’s all window dressing, really. Swiss Army Man, under its morbid premise is a meta-romcom, and it’s a pretty conservative one too, with just a single kiss shared onscreen. Hank is endearing, if not a little unconventional, like a scrawny Bear Grylls, who shops at Urban Outfitters. Paul Dano’s natural and understated charm gives a touch of added lightness to Hank’s darker edges of angst ridden masturbation and Instagram creeping. And who knew, Daniel Radcliffe has a real talent for playing dead. No, joke! Manny is dragged, kicked, and dropped a lot, all handled with total physical commitment by the boy wizard himself; an image he’s probably keen to shake off by now: no doubt this role will upset some potterheads.
Despite what some might say, The Daniels aren’t even close to John Water’s Pink Flamingos level of shock ’n puke territory. You haven’t been truly grossed out until you’ve watched Divine eat dog poop onscreen, just saying. No, their tastes seemingly lean more towards David Gordon Green’s All The Real Girls via Ted Kotcheff’s Weekend at Bernie’s. They use their ninja-like Adobe After Effects skills to seamlessly stitch together desolate locations and practical effects to create a tragic story that’s ultimately a tale of male friendship, which pushes the boundaries of reality and farting in equal measure. And hell, why not!