Within moments of its start, it’s clear that there’s some kind of sorcery at work in Swiss Army Man. It arrives riding a wave of buzz and a singular hook. That a movie so bizarre—and seemingly without anything resembling restraint or self-awareness—even exists is a feat in itself. And for a few glorious hours, Swiss Army Man hits bulls eye after bulls eye. It’s insanely odd, propulsively kinetic, and boisterously funny.
Stranded on a deserted island and in the throes of unbearable loneliness, Hank (Paul Dano) is on the brink suicide when Daniel Radcliffe’s well-dressed corpse washes ashore. The movie’s darkly sublime sense of humor comes through within seconds: Hank mistakes the flatulence erupting from this extremely dead (and extremely gassy) body for speech and begins talking to it. But even more exciting is the movie’s willingness to enthusiastically outdo itself: Hank notes the same noisy gas pushing the body across the water and, within seconds, hops aboard, shooting through the surf like he’s riding a jet ski.
It’s an oddly affecting and triumphantly absurd image. While Hank may be piloting a vessel driven by digestic acids, the movie shoots on sheer verve. By the time Hank starts schooling his reanimated buddy in bodily functions and social mores, anything’s possible.
Incredibly, it all works. Obscured by a breakneck momentum and situational absurdity, the line between imagination and reality is beside the point, allowing the movie to function on an emotionally abstract level. An argument, for example, that the impulse to hold in farts and bottling one’s enthusiasm for life are in fact the same and a dangerous barrier against potential happiness is, in the moment, thrillingly insightful stuff. Of course the whole thing crumbles upon even the slightest scrutiny; but there’s an unmistakable magic to a movie that can conjure something so stupid and convincingly sell it as profound.
The movie ultimately abandons its audience with a third-act twist seemingly designed to function as a betrayal. It invites our sympathy and trust and, when we’re riding its wavelength like that farting corpse, the whole thing turns on us. In its final moments, it adopts a smug, disapproving posture that chides viewers for being silly enough to buy into it in the first place. It’s a cold move, and it feels especially unfair given the depth of our investment—we’re an easy target.
But before the movie tips its hand, Swiss Army Man is trick unlike any other—one almost worth believing.
Swiss Army Man. Written and directed by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan. Starring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. Opens in Kansas City July 1, 2016.