Weird and wonderful, disgusting and demented, Swiss Army Man is about how one man’s dead body nudges another man back to life. Impossible to categorize, this stunningly original mix of the macabre and the magical combines comedy, tragedy, fantasy and love story into an utterly singular package that’s beholden to no rules but its own.
As such, it demands complete surrender to a vision that veers from bewitching to irritating, sometimes within the same scene. Pay no attention to the frayed and porous plot; pull on a loose thread, and the spell will unravel. And we need that sorcery if we’re to inhabit the fractured mind of Hank (Paul Dano), a seemingly longtime castaway who’s about to end his misery when a business-suited body washes up on the beach in front of him.
Gassy, soggy and glassy-eyed, the corpse (played by Daniel Radcliffe in what has to be the most uncomfortable role of his career) delights Hank, who names him Manny and resolves to care for him. What follows is a bizarre buddy movie as Hank hauls his flatulent friend across beach and through forest, and when Manny begins to talk, his innocently absurd questions about the workings of his body become a way for Hank to escape the pain in his head.
On paper, this can all sound unbearably precious. What makes it work, however, is a synchronicity of acting and music, photography and special effects, from which the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (known as Daniels), whip up an atmosphere of effluvial enchantment. Some of their sequences sigh with romance, like Hank’s woodland re-creation of a city bus ride, using stray branches and random trash. Still others, as when Hank flies across the waves perched on Manny’s exuberantly farting torso, buzz with bonkers energy.
Dipping and soaring in tandem with the marvelously melancholic music of Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, Swiss Army Man never seems sure where it’s going or when it will get there. Like the knife given a nod in the title, Manny’s floppy carcass is a multipurpose survival tool of therapist, water fountain, fire starter, Jet Ski and even compass. (“I think your penis is guiding us home,” Hank says, marveling at Manny’s twitching organ — a trick that the directors have used before in at least one music video.)
Contrivances like this can feel overdone. Yet as reality and illusion jostle for control of the frame, the movie shapes a tenderly empathetic portrait of a man whose loneliness runs so deep that even a friend who’s a stiff is better than no friend at all.
Cast: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe.
Writers-directors: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert.
An A24 Films release. Running time: 95 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, adult themes. Playing at area theaters. Directors Kwan and Scheinert will participate in a Q&A via Skype at a screening this weekend at O Cinema Wynwood, 90 NW 29th St. For details, visit www.o-cinema.org or call 305-571-9970.