I have to give it to Daniel Radcliffe. It's been nearly five years since his decade-long run as Harry Potter came to an end, and the young actor has gone a long way to keep that role from defining him forever. Yes, he'll always be the Boy Who Lived to many the world over, but thanks to his taking on projects like The Woman in Black, Horns, and Kill Your Darlings, he's proven that he's more than up for a challenge, sidestepping what surely has been a post-Potter career full of easy paycheck offers for one far more interesting and diverse.
And yet again, he continues his streak in Swiss Army Man, directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert - the duo collectively known as Daniels - which features Radcliffe playing a farting corpse with more than a few surprises up his sleeve, the role as much a far cry from his Potter days as it is his other work.
Swiss Army Man starts out with its intentions clear: We first meet Paul Dano's marooned Hank preparing to hang himself, the film skipping over the how and why and when of the character's arrival to open on this clear moment of hopelessness, setting a tone that's brightened only when Hank spots a corpse washed up on the shore nearby. It's not long before Hank discovers that the corpse - who he later comes to call Manny - is more than just a useless hunk of dead flesh, as its ability to fart quite literally propels the two of them on an adventure, only the tip of the iceberg in what Manny can actually do.
To put it mildly, it's a surreal film in more ways than one, and if one isn't willing to throw themselves into the premise in the same way Radcliffe threw himself into the role of Manny, it will undoubtedly be a hard pill to swallow. In fact, when I saw the film, only four other people were in the theater when it started; two of them left before the halfway mark. Not a large sample size, obviously, but still representative in its own way of how many will thoroughly be on board with the film or not, with little to no middle ground.
Beyond its premise, however, there are much deeper messages, as the relationship between Hank and Manny uses conversations about everything from farts to masturbation to Jurassic Park to comment on larger ideas of sex, love, isolation, alienation, depression, obsession, and simply finding oneself. It should come as no secret that Manny grows capable of talking with Hank, and his childlike questions about all aspects of life and the world around him are both endearing for Radcliffe's humorous delivery and for the simplicity in which they help strip down those aforementioned ideas to their core, forcing Hank to confront his own multitude of issues via having to explain everything to his new friend.
Dano himself does great, understated work here, Hank's holding back of information about himself, particularly a girl on his phone screen who may or may not be his girlfriend, giving the actor the chance to play the character with a sense of unease. Even as Manny helps Hank come out of his shell, so to speak, there's still always something bubbling under the surface with Hank, raising many questions about how he got stranded - and not in the marooned sense - and what he's so desperate to go home for. As Hank explains to Manny about how the world works, from how it won't accept Manny's abilities to how people are supposed to think and act and talk, it's clear that his act of suicide at the beginning of the film might be stemming from a far deeper place than simply losing hope over being rescued.
As for Radcliffe, he both steals the film and compliments Dano, admirably throwing himself into a role that many will find to be more physical than expected from a corpse. The two make a solid pair who go through the type of "buddy" arc we've seen in countless films, only here it's presented on a much more complex level, as Manny's own personal growth and emotional development is entwined with Hank's own deconstruction and rebirth. Right up until the end, the film gives the audience the choice to decide whether their adventure together is all real or, perhaps, just in Hank's head, but ultimately it doesn't necessarily matter one way or the other, as Manny - imagined or otherwise - gives Hank the opportunity to rediscover himself in the wilderness and become the type of person he never thought he could be, challenging social norms and the idea of "being weird" in the process in the process.
This simple journey does take a major turn in the final stretch of the film, as the two find their way back to the rest of the world, where truths about Hank and the girl from the phone, Sarah - played by the always-welcome Mary Elizabeth Winstead - come to light and the character who has found himself anew has to confront a life he left behind as a much different person. Without diving too deep into spoilers, the film's recontextualization of Hank as a person and his mental state in its final minutes goes a long way in paying off some of the ideas and issues raised earlier, adding another lens through which to retroactively view Hank and Manny's journey that's simultaneously - and appropriately - depressing and hopeful.
On a superficial scale, Swiss Army Man also ticks a lot of indie stereotypes, from the type of whimsical, almost fantastical camerawork big budget projects tend to avoid to its quirky soundtrack that more often than not spills over into the proceedings to the point where Manny and/or Hank are singing right along with it. It does work for the film, but coupled with its unique premise and frequent juxtaposition of heavy themes against a dead body's compass-like erections, it may be more than enough to push someone already on the fence right over and away from it all.
Ultimately, so long as you're open to where the film will take you, you'll find that it's a funny and oft-touching hour and a half, but just how strong you find the film will rely on just how deeply you connect to its themes and the unique way in which it explores them. Though its overall presentation is definitely not for everyone, it has a lot to say if you're willing to - and I can't believe I'm going to say this - push past the farts to listen to the beating heart underneath.
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