Let it be known: The corpse farts. The corpse farts exuberantly, so much that it can propel a man across the ocean and into the sky. Its depths of noxious gas appear as infinite as our ability to laugh at them.
From the moment Swiss Army Man premiered at Sundance in January and sent bewildered industry types to the exits, its fate was to become known as “the farting corpse movie,” an adolescent novelty for the snickering class. And it is that. The corpse never stops farting, and the film is proudly scatological. Yet if any movie can transcend such an ignoble introduction, it’s this one. The tale of a marooned castaway and the friendly cadaver who nurses him back to health, Swiss Army Man opens as a desert-island fantasy and morphs into a disturbingly intimate buddy movie—hilarious, deranged, and always alive with possibility. There are real rewards for the viewer who, as our stranded hero mounts the flatulent body and uses it as a makeshift jet ski, just holds on tight and goes with it.
We first encounter Hank (Paul Dano) with his head in a noose, whispering his last rites in voice-over on a remote beach. He’s saved when a sodden corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe washes ashore. Manny, as Hank names him, is clearly dead, but Hank’s desperation seems to reanimate him; Manny becomes a kind of Friday to Hank’s Crusoe, requiring his master to reteach him the ways of the world. They cover the important topics: love, loneliness, masturbation, farts. When Hank tells Manny most people hold their wind around each other, he seems hurt. “Is that why you won’t fart in front of me?” he demands. “That’s so sad.”
Meanwhile, Hank learns that Manny has magical powers—his gaseous recesses are powerful in more ways than I can describe here, and a certain body part acts as an effective compass. In one of Swiss Army Man’s many canny moves, these powers are presented as simple facts to be put to immediate practical use. In a series of breathlessly funny and inventive montages, Hank uses Manny’s multipurpose body as a tool to build a fortress and hunt some very unlucky squirrels. The pair spend their evenings acting out their futures, including what it will be like when they get back to civilization and finally find women to love. For this lesson, Hank puts on a scraggly wig, and there is man-on-corpse romantic roleplay. Things were already weird, but this is where they get deeply, irrevocably weird.
Swiss Army Man’s premise, such as it is, was always bound to turn people away. Perhaps it’s even designed to do so. But writer-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, longtime video artists making their feature debut, create something improbably beautiful out of what could have been a feature-length fart joke. The movie dances seamlessly between sight gags and lyrical asides, working off both hopeful energy and anxious bouts of fear and regret. “The Daniels,” as they bill themselves, have an antic visual style that can feel a little greedy for our attention; the buoyant score by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of Manchester Orchestra sometimes balances this manic pace and sometimes exacerbates it. Yet the young directors consistently surprise us, bringing their giddy camera to a halt for tender moments that cut far more deeply than they should.
In great part that’s due to Dano and Radcliffe, who are utterly committed. Dano, in movies like Gigantic and The Extra Man, can be prone to manufactured quirk, but he’s finally found a part he can’t make weirder than it already is. And though it feels unkind to say Radcliffe makes a stellar semifunctional corpse, it’s true: His particular stiffness feels carefully calibrated, an evolving trait that makes the character both stranger and more likable.
Together Dano and Radcliffe endure a relentless spate of physical indignities, and it’s hard to imagine any two actors sharing more physical closeness in a movie this year. This is partly thematic: Perhaps Hank has imagined Manny’s second life, lumbering through the forest with a rotting corpse on his back in place of a anthropomorphic volleyball. Dano and Radcliffe bear out this tension by forging a fearless intimacy. The film clearly doesn’t want to shy away from the homoerotic edge inherent in the proceedings, and Dano and Radcliffe are happy to go there. Their performances are full of a bracing sense of discovery.
If Swiss Army Man’s last scenes jerk the movie too far into the literal, suggesting a kind of male romantic trauma as mental illness, a final burst of magical flatulence leaves its mysteries intact. In this deliriously creative movie, it’s clear these fart jokes have sacred power.