You’ve been waiting for this moment.
You heard about a weird movie at Sundance that people were walking out of. A movie where Daniel Radcliffe plays a farting corpse. You saw plenty of clickbait-y headlines in January saying as much.
You thought it was crazy that a movie like that could exist, weren’t surprised that there were walk-outs, then probably put it out of your mind, as you assumed it would never get a wide release and would just be one of those weird Sundance stories that never went anywhere. But now whenever Daniel Radcliffe’s name comes up in conversations around the watercolor, you can pipe in with a “Hey, did you hear he played a farting corpse in a weird indie movie?”
Now that the movie has finally been released, six months after its Sundance premiere, it feels like my job as a critic to tell you how hilariously awful it is. How your giggles and presumptions and raised eyebrows were justified. How I wish I could’ve walked out. How it was silly and stupid and one-note.
I’m sorry to say that I can’t do that. Not with this movie.
Despite how silly it may appear, how bonkers the premise is, how hard this is to believe, Swiss Army Man (2016) is a pretty good movie. It’s not the best movie I’ve seen this year (hell, it’s not even the best movie I’ve seen today*), but it’s pretty damn good, for what it is.
I try to make it a policy to only divulge as much plot information as is given in the trailers and never anything more. For this reason, I’ll just give this little anecdote. The desert island stuff — i.e. most of what you learn from the movie’s logline — is in the first few minutes. I sat down in the theater, the movie started, and Daniel Radcliffe’s farting body washes up on the shores of the beach almost immediately. Within five minutes, Paul Dano is riding Daniel Radcliffe’s corpse like a fart-powered jet ski (which was the conclusion of the trailer, which is usually reserved for Act II stuff). At this point, I realized as I was watching this that I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen in this movie outside of what I had already seen. And we had 90 minutes left. For a few panicked minutes, I thought that the next 90 minutes would just be more footage of Paul Dano riding a farting Daniel Radcliffe corpse, like a marginally-funny Funny or Die video that just wouldn’t die. I’ll just say this: it’s not that.
The writer/director(s), Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (crediting in the movie as “Daniels”), said in a Q&A after the screening that they carefully marketed the movie, trying to make people think that this movie really was nothing more than Cast Away + a farting corpse. It’s a fair bit more than that.
Unfortunately, not divulging plot information also diminishes my ability to talk about the movie in detail. Let me just say: a lot of weird stuff happens. Really weird, surreal stuff. And before you start making predictions — as I silently was while I watched — the movie doesn’t really have much internal logic. There’s no Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge type of moment. There’s no Life of Pi story-hiding-the-true-story situation. We’re not led to believe that what we’re seeing isn’t real and that it’s an allegory for what actually happened. What you see is what you get, regardless of how little sense it makes.
However, I will say that I was completely unsurprised to learn that the Daniels had previously directed the bat-shit crazy (but, frankly, perfect) music video for DJ Snake’s “Turn Down for What”. There’s enough overlap that that makes sense.
The movie’s good because it’s sweet. It’s sincere. It’s unapologetic of its silliness, and it uses its premise to examine friendship, loneliness, and self-worth, at times to semi-profound effect.
Also, Shane Carruth of all people (writer/director/star of Primer (2004) and Upstream Color (2013)) makes a cameo towards the end. Given how shit-serious Primer and Upstream Color are, he’s not the guy I would expect to see in this type of movie.
What type of movie is this? The last line of the movie sums it up well: a quick pull-in to a character’s face, and a sincerely confused “What the fuck?”
So now, when you hear someone bring up Harry Potter around the watercooler, and someone says “I hear he played a farting corpse in a weird indie movie,” it’s now your obligation to pipe up and say “Actually, I heard that was a pretty good movie.”
Oh, and if you ever get a chance to actually see it, feel free to do so. There are worse ways to spend a Saturday night.