With films like “The Lobster,” “Ex Machina” and “Room,” studio A24 is quickly becoming one to trust if you’re looking for something imaginative, in-depth and soul-stirring. Its latest is “Swiss Army Man,” a comedic, philosophical powerhouse that opens Friday at Zinema 2.
In it, Hank (Paul Dano) is lost at sea and ready to hang himself, until he spots a body on the shore. After a brief and gassy introduction, Hank takes the body he’s named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) for a ride. “This man saved me from the brink of death when he allowed me to ride him like a jet ski,” Hank says.
Back on shore, Hank wears Manny like a backpack, as he hikes through the woods before taking shelter in a cave. The next morning, Hank discovers Manny’s body works as a water fountain when he presses his chest. He’s doubly amazed and shocked when Manny starts talking. “Are you a miracle or am I just hallucinating from starvation?” he asks.
Whatever the case, writers/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert are saying “let the magical realism roll.” And it’s sound advice.
As they try to make their way to Hank’s true love, Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Hank finds new uses for Manny’s body: a compass, a shooting feature and magic gas. And on top of utility, Manny comes in handy for companionship.
He’s like a blank slate, asking “What is home? What is life? What is poop?” And Hank, the guy who wanted to die turns into a life coach for the dead.
In one scene, Hank explains food by showing Manny litter he finds scattered in the woods — a cheese puff bag, a Chinese food container and an empty pizza box.
“Why don’t they want it?” Manny asks. Because it’s empty, Hank says, and they don’t need it anymore.
Soon after, Manny asks “What do they do with people who die?” Hank explains, and Manny: “So, I’m like trash.”
“Swiss Army Man” is full of internal cues for reflection like this. The men behind this film pointedly call out social anxieties and selective intimacy through Manny’s insecurities (“My body’s disgusting,” he cries) and Hank’s over-awareness of himself.
In one scene, Hank is hesitant to act out a scene from his life. “What will people think,” he asks. Like the dead man Manny, one wonders who could be watching and why it matters, and this all culminates into an unanticipated, meta ending that won’t be soon forgotten.
Technically, “Swiss Army Man” is firing on all cylinders. The acting is exquisite. Daniel Radcliffe as Manny somehow masters the art of un-acting, monotone-ly expressing emotion with care. In one scene, the two are crossing a metal pipe high above the water, and he says, “I’m scared cause if I die, I will really miss you.” (Prepare for tears in the theater.)
Paul Dano as Hank expresses contemporary anxiety and the plague of social-media awareness with poignancy and sweetness. In one scene, Hank ad-libs a lullaby from his childhood, and it’s super charming: “I thought I was rescued / but you’re just a dead dude / where do you come from / cotton eye Joe.” Watching both characters transform is the joy of this film.
And props for the music, sound editing, visual effects and screenplay.
This is the first feature-length film for Kwan and Scheinert, and this may be a hard act to follow. “Swiss Army Man” is an impressive piece that works as an unapologetic and endearingly executed mirror. If you struggle with suspension of disbelief, you may struggle here. But this film is hyper-aware of its audience and its medium, and it asks us to forget ourselves — so it can show us ourselves.
And it succeeds. It’s worth seeing.
Rating: Rated R for language and sexual material
Now playing: Zinema 2
More info: swissarmyman.com