If you look on the Odeon Cinemas app, there are little one line descriptions of each of the films they are showing. Bad Moms: Three overworked mothers snap and decide to have some fun. Kubo and the Two Strings: Kubo goes on a quest to reclaim his father’s armour. Don’t Breathe: Three thieves break into a seemingly harmless blind man’s house. Deepwater Horizon: The true story of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Then you get to Swiss Army Man and it says Daniel Radcliffe stars as a magical flatulent corpse. It’s a fair synopsis but does rather stick out on the list.
Well, this is appropriate as the full film kind of sticks out too. Even in a year in which we have had movies about sex obsessed hotdog sausages (1), young models getting eaten by their catwalk rivals (2), people being told what to do by a demonic talking goat (3) and kings falling in love with giant fleas (4) we have not had anything quite as bizarre or original as this.
The plot starts with Paul Dano’s Hank stranded on a desert island and just at the point at which he has given up all hope and intends to end his life a dead body washes up on the beach. Desperate for human company of any kind the man befriends the cadaver which in turn starts to talk to him as well as providing all manner of useful survival skills like propelling itself skidding across the surface of the ocean with the strength of its farts, regurgitating never ending supplies of drinking water and firing buckshot from its mouth to hunt birds and rabbits. As the two slowly make their way back to civilisation they connect through the reconstruction of key moments from one of their lives; building cafes and other locations out of sticks and rubbish while Hank is able to move the corpse with the assistance of a series of ropes and pulleys. It is touching, it is surreal, it is ambiguous, it is unpredictable, it is like an art house version of Weekend at Bernie’s and it is quite quite brilliant.
It is possible that others may not admire this film as much as I do. It is going to depend on people’s tolerance for body humour and there is one element surrounding how the body navigates that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with myself. However, it is all clever and witty and there is a point to all of it. Irrelevant of how funny you find raspberry noises though this is undeniably filmmaking without compromise and that is always to be commended. The movie also has a surprisingly high distribution for something that is not going to be universally accessible to all audiences (no doubt because of Radcliffe) and I hope it makes money so that directors, producers and financiers are prepared to take similar risks in the future. Deliberately or otherwise Radcliffe is using his star power to get interesting projects made as well and that should be equally celebrated.
Personally, for a film that is so focussed on death, I found the film to be beautiful in how it dealt with the simple things in life, things like riding the bus and seeing someone smile. I also like that it turns in on this when the story takes a potentially darker direction and raises questions about the true nature of one of the characters and his relationship with the woman who is the object his affections. It may have more farting in it than Blazing Saddles but Swiss Army Man is a smart film that demands an intellectual response from those who watch it and will stay with you long after the credits have rolled. It might all be a death fantasy like the end of Life on Mars (or Gravity?) or it may be designed to be taken more literally but that will be up to you and I strongly suggest you go and see it so that you can decide for yourself. You shouldn’t regret it; this audacious and bonkers little movie is one of the best films of the year.
The Ripley Factor:
Swiss Army Man only really has a main cast of two but Mary Elizabeth Winstead does feature briefly but significantly, following up her powerfully feminist role in 10 Cloverfield Lane with another strong but realistic female character.
(1) Sausage Party (2) The Neon Demon (3) The Witch (4) Tale of Tales