However successful or interesting you find Swiss Army Man, you have to hand it to writer/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – it’s one of the most inventive ideas in movies in quite awhile.
Hank (Paul Dano), a castaway on a desert island, has run out of hope as the movie opens, preparing to end everything by hanging himself. When he suddenly spies someone lying in the surf he hurriedly and hopefully untangles himself from his rope, running to the side of the figure to find Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), not only dead but with his corpse farting continually.
Pretty soon Hank is pulling Manny’s body into the ocean and riding it like a jet-ski, propelled by the flatulence – the first hint you have that maybe this whole movie is a fever dream in the mind of a dying man, and that at some point it’ll all be revealed that Hank has lost his mind or already died, dreaming about Manny in his own death throes.
But no such neat reveal ever comes and Hank and Manny’s story only gets weirder. They make it to a far coast on the edge of a thick forest where Hank thinks civilisation is waiting for them if they can make it to the other side.
Knowing he can’t drag Manny’s body all the way home with him Hank finds himself unable to leave it behind, so instead he builds camp, sitting Manny up beside the campsite and talking to him as if he was alive.
Eventually (and shockingly), Manny starts to talk back, soon showing more signs of life, quickly becoming indispensable to Hank’s survival for any number of arcane purposes.
At some point you start to wonder if Swiss Army Man is a parable for birth or childhood. Manny doesn’t know anything about anything, and as Hank uses him as a firelighter, wood-chopper, drinking fountain and more and their friendship grows, Manny wants to know everything just like little kid would.
Hank finds himself having to explain about bodily functions from human waste to masturbation and sex (and just to maintain the weirdness quotient, Manny’s erection is also a compass that’s directing them back towards home), but also love.
It all kind of makes sense from Manny’s point of view – waking up from death and with no memory of his former life, it’s like he’s a child himself – just as fascinated by erections, farts and poo as any little boy is.
The memory keeping Hank going is of a woman he sits near on the bus (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) he wishes he had the courage to talk to, so his mission becomes explaining to Manny how the small, simple art of talking to an attractive stranger and hoping they fall in love with you becomes one of the most impactful experiences of the human condition.
As Manny dribbles water out of his open mouth, his limbs falling at unnatural angles and with a cork applied by Hank holding his gas in, he looks wistfully at the stars and campfire, fascinated by the sound of everything Hank tells him and unable to wait to experience it for himself.
Despite the narrative devices that make Swiss Army Man so weird, so disgusting (often both at once), it has a real fairy tale quality and a tone of whimsy. Among the sequences that feel like dreamy love stories is one where Hank uses leaves, branches and rubbish they find in the forest to build an entire scene about riding on a bus while pining for the girl.
If you really want to know if this is all (or partly) real the script makes no concessions for you, and that might put you off. But if you can appreciate the storybook quality of a tale full of the amazing and impossible (and get past the sex and toilet references) you might find some level of artistry.