Taken at face value, the story of a disturbed man dragging a flatulent corpse around a forest to converse with as he waits for rescue has the potential to be something offensive and intolerable. But this peculiar, strangely moving film, the work of Daniels – co-writers and directors Daniel Schienert and Dan Kwan – provides us with a uniquely painful portrait of mental illness.
On the verge of suicide by hanging on what is seemingly a tiny spit of land in the middle of nowhere, Hank (Paul Dano) spots a body washing up on the beach. When his rope snaps he takes it as an omen that the dead man (Daniel Radcliffe), who he later names Manny, has been sent to keep him alive. Once he reveals a capacity to speak Manny displays a naivety about life and an ignorance of his previous life in the world of the living.
As if directing a child, Hank reveals to his all-purpose, interactive corpse friend the fundamental aspects of life, including behaviour to adopt in direct contact with the opposite sex. Often aimless, uncomfortably grim and just as regularly blackly humourous, Swiss Army Man (2016) is concerned with establishing the way in which the two form an intimate bond and unlikely alliance in forging onward, despite Hank’s misgivings, to get back to the world.
In a sense this instruction is as much about Hank’s need to re-educate himself about the life that he’s avoided but must inevitably return to. Having Manny as a wall to bounce off provides him with the necessary objectivity to untangle his own shortcomings and pierce the haze created by his unstable, dysfunctional perception of life. In the briefest of snippets we see Hank riding a bus and taking notice of a woman who becomes the focus of a fixation that will define him in strange, perturbing ways as his interaction with Manny takes on greater detail.
With stunning work from Paul Dano and a fine assist from Daniel Radcliffe – two actors increasingly unafraid to take creative chances in their careers – Swiss Army Man evolves into a deliciously strange, often bizarre cinematic experience which will earn your admiration for its devotion to a brazenly idiosyncratic point of view. A couple of montages in which an internal, yet interactive world – created by Hank using the detritus of tourists to fashion a bus, a stage, costumes and countless other things – comes to life, provide the film with its most loopily inspired moments. They also offer a brilliant overlapping of image and sound as the equally unconventional, off-kilter score by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell contributes a strange magic of its own.
With a literal interpretation out of the question, there are multiple ways, obviously, to deduce the unfolding of the film’s narrative. It becomes clear, however, that Schienert and Kwan’s interest is in illuminating the often piercingly creative internal life of a damaged psyche. Through Hank we see something startling coming to life, offering genuine poignancy, especially as the slightly incongruent, not entirely successful, final scenes arrive. And as they do, a pervasive sadness, in which all of Hank’s inhibitions, anxieties and apprehensions about his life outside of Manny and the forest, are uncomfortably confirmed, is juxtaposed with an elusive, consolatory flash of liberation from the very same constrictions that prevented Hank from fulfilling any kind of destiny.