Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe star in this surreal, whimsical lark of a film created by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert.
Hank (Dano) is stranded in the wilderness on a beach. All he has is a cell phone with 10% charge and no signal. He’s about to hang himself with he sees another person (Radcliffe) wash up on shore. However, when he gets to him, he finds that the person has already died. However, as the body starts to expel farts. So many farts that they’re actually able to propel the body through the water. That gives Hank the idea to ride the body like a jet ski to get back to the mainland. When they arrive, they’re still on a beach with no cell service. Desperate for companionship, and thinking it’s the right thing to do, Hank drags the body with him to a nearby cave in order to wait out a storm.
While they’re inside the cave, Hank starts to talk to the body. He’s understandably surprised, when the body mutters some words back to him. It’s unclear whether or not this is the result of Hank losing his mind, or some kind of weird interpretation of post-mortem phenomena on the body. Whatever the cause, the body and Hank start to talk to each other, granted the body can only utter a few broken words. Hank determines that the body’s name is Manny. Hank also finds out that Manny’s body was able to catch water from the rain the night before. Hank uses the water to replenish himself and Manny starts to speak in more cogent sentences. Hank takes Manny with him through the wilderness and starts to discover that his body can do all sorts of other things as well. He becomes Hank’s “Do everything guy” as Manny puts it. Manny comes with karate chop action, the ability to launch projectiles from his mouth, water storing capabilities and several other useful abilities.
While they are in the wilderness, Manny happens to see the picture on Hank’s phone. Manny has no real memory of who he is, but he becomes convinced that he knows the woman on the phone. While Hank is trying to figure out how to get home, Manny insists that Hank help him remember who the woman is. So, Hank starts to recreate situations from society that help Manny remember things like going to a restaurant, riding a bus or dancing at a party. Hank even goes so far as to construct a drag costume for himself to mimic the girl in the photo. Hank continues to carry Manny’s body through the woods towards civilization while helping him get his memory back. In the process, Hank realizes that Manny has actually become his friend. Eventually, they make their way back to the edge of civilization but, before they’re journey is complete, Hank reveals the truth to Manny. Hank tells Manny that the phone and the picture actually belong to him, causing a rift between he and Manny. During their fight, they are attacked by a bear and Manny manages to move his body and defend Hank from the bear by lighting his farts on a campfire. They reconcile and manage to make their way back into a neighborhood.
The house that they turn up at happens to belong to Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the woman from the phone photo. At this point, things take a pretty sad turn. It turns out that Hank didn’t actually know Sarah, he just admired her from afar and took her picture one day on the bus. When Sarah and her husband call the authorities, Hank is beset upon by media, police and his disapproving father. The authorities start to take Manny’s body away and Hank doesn’t want to let them. He takes Manny’s body back through the woods to the coast. When the police give chase, they see the remains of Hank and Manny’s makeshift civilization. At this point everyone, understandably, believes Hank has lost it. He sits, clutching Manny’s body in the surf. As Hank is getting ready to be taken away, Manny’s farts reactivate and he propels himself back out to see while everyone (except Hank) watches from the shore…extremely confused.
What did I think?
The last line in this movie is, “What the F***?”. It is uttered by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and there is no better way to describe the feeling that I had during and after watching this movie. This is a movie that completely plays with the idea of reality. I was never sure if what I was watching was actually real or Hank’s delusion. Intellectually, I understand that that doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of the movie. Even so, I couldn’t shake the feeling of uncertainty that the augmented reality left me with.
Distractions aside, the movie had a really a lot of really cool moments and effects in it. I loved the way that they made Manny’s body look and the way that they manifested his powers. There were also some absolutely beautiful scenes when Manny and Hank are out in the woods together. One of my favorites was when they recreated a city bus out of, essentially, a tree house. There was a great shot where Hank, dressed as Sarah, walked on to the bus and was spotlighted by the sun and surrounded by glowing plant life.
One of the other notable elements of the movie was the way that the soundtrack was interspersed into the characters dialogue. Characters would start making sounds either with their mouths or the environment and the sounds layer and transition into full orchestration. It happens much more frequently in the front half of the movie when Hank and Manny are moving from one location to another. No matter when it happens though, it’s fun and very well done.
At its core, this is movie is a friendship story. It is just a very unusual friendship story. Through their journey, Hank and Manny become closer as Manny learns more about Hank and starts to slowly become more and more alive. It’s all very light hearted and whimsical. Then, the movie sucker punches you at the very end with the reveal that Hank’s life back in civilization is actually pretty sad. He’s been fighting to get back only to find out that he was happier out in the wilderness with Manny. That realization and the relationship between the two leads is really the takeaway from the movie.
In the end we don’t really know what becomes of Hank and Manny. Presumably, Hank ends up in some kind of mental institution and Manny’s body ends up decomposing at the bottom of the sea. However, having everyone witness Manny’s magical jet ski farts leaves the idea open that everyone else might actually accept Hank’s experience. As an audience member, I was completely confused as to how this story would or could end up playing out. However, the process of telling the story was fun, unique, and memorable.
Swiss Army Man (2016)
- A fun and unique movie with a heartfelt (but potentially confusing) story
- Dano and Racliffe make this movie work, despite how bizarre it is
- It's hard to tell whether or not this is a surreal story happening in a real world versus a real story in a surreal world.