The final line in Swiss Army Man is "What the fuck?!" It'll no doubt resonate with audiences, who'll likely be questioning what the hell they've just seen. One of the most talked-about films of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, it's made headlines as much for its graphic bodily-function humour as it has for its supposed mass walkouts. But while it wears its bizarreness on its sleeve and will no doubt perplex some, there's actually a lot to admire here. And those walkouts? Commonplace at Sundance, where there are a lot of films to see and not enough time to see them all. The audience we saw it with were lapping it up, from the first break of wind onwards.
The first feature from short film and music video directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (aka The Daniels), Swiss Army Man lays out its stall from the get go. Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on an island, and his hopeful messages-in-bottles are not having the desired effect. Resolved to his doom, he's on the brink of suicide when a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore, offering a chance of salvation. The Swiss Army Man of the title, Manny (as he's later revealed to be called) is a corpse of many uses, and his usefulness is revealed instantly. His excessive flatulence propels him through the water, and Hank rides him like a jet ski towards home. It's a surreal, hilarious visual, made all the more audacious by the utter commitment of the actors. This whole sequence takes place before the opening titles come up, and these 10 minutes alone would serve as a solid short film, so much so, it's hard to know where it'll go next when they hit dry land. This is where the bromance starts, as the pair have to make their way through the woods towards Hank's home.
As stiff, motionless corpse Manny, Radcliffe delivers an impressive physical performance, from his face down to his limbs. It's another bold post-Potter move from the boy who lived, a wilfully uncommercial prospect that helps demonstrate his considerable range. Slowly, he learns about the world from Hank, taking in as much about human biology (and its embarrassing side effects) as social relationships and human interaction. And, yes, love. Oh, and he also had a twitching boner that can point them in the right direction home. Told you he was multi-functional.
Through the course of their travels, Hank fills Manny in on his lonely life, and the girl he carries an unrequited love for, often using handmade puppets and models to illustrate his points. It's a kooky touch, but one that works in the context of the generally surreal tone. And as Manny slowly learns about life and love (making him a more interesting update on the Frankenstein's monster than Radcliffe's recent box-office bomb), the crude humour is given a lot of heartfelt context. It'll be a little too gross for certain tastes, but go with it and you'll be rewarded with something deeper and more personal than your standard fratboy comedy.
As their journey goes on, and Manny is proven to have even more skills (karate-chop action, projectile-launching gob), the absurd laughs come thick and fast, but it's the emerging friendship that sticks with you more than the ridiculous images. Putting human foibles under the microscope, it's a much more sensitive film than the recent headlines have given it credit for. By the end of the film, you may even just find yourself being moved by a fart gag. WTF indeed.
Images: Swiss Army Man