One of the most anticipated movies at Sundance inspired the biggest reports of walkouts. At the world premiere of “Swiss Army Man” last week, an oversold crowd at the Eccles theater crammed the aisles, prompting Park City police to deal with the overflow. Minutes after its first scene, however, audiences streamed out of the room almost as quickly as they pressed into it. Reports told the story bluntly: Daniel Radcliffe farts a lot in this movie.
But that’s just a small piece of the oddball puzzle of “Swiss Army Man,” the surreal, mesmerizing first feature from Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who go by the joint moniker “The Daniels.” The offending sequence in question involves an opening moment in which Hank (a bearded Paul Dano) prepares to commit suicide on a deserted island, only to discover a corpse on the shore moments before he plans to commit the deed. The pale-faced newcomer is Manny (Radcliffe), and the gas emitting from his bowels take on new dimensions as the body drifts back into the waves, propelling him forward. The credits roll triumphantly as Hank mounts Manny, yanks down his pants and speeds across the waves in a victorious escape.
Needless to say, there has never been a plot point quite like it in the history of cinema, but that’s not the only outrageous gag offered up here; the Daniels use it as a starting point for the strangest buddy comedy ever made. Finding himself newly marooned in a forest, Hank drags Manny through the vacant brush, singing the occasional song — the bubbly a cappella soundtrack was written exclusively for the movie — while gradually figuring out ingenious ways to use Manny’s body as a resource. His Rube Goldberg-like inventiveness finds him ricocheting string from the body’s gullet to scrounge up cliffs and staying hydrated from the water that streams out from Manny’s mouth. Then somehow Manny gradually comes to life — at least, a little bit, twitching his cheeks just enough to communicate, though he shows no signs of knowing anything about the world.
That’s when “Swiss Army Man” kicks into high gear, as Hank constructs a wooden village to educate his new pal about civilization, even as he celebrates the opportunity to flee it. Vibrantly shot by cinematographer Larkin Seiple, “Swiss Army Man” is a deliriously kooky yet controlled experience. Jagged editing strategies maintain ambiguity about whether or not these events actually unfold as Hank witnesses them or simply exist in the confines of his deranged mind.
That’s beside the point, though, as the idiosyncratic flourishes keep churning along. Lyrics from the songs, which ultimately become lively duets, range from utterly cheeky (“I thought I was rescued/but you’re just a dead dude”), to galvanizing melodies about boners (one of which plays a crucial role in the plot when it inexplicably becomes a compass pointing the way to freedom). The Daniels seem especially intent on satirizing the way popular culture informs public taste and limits human experiences. Whether Hank’s aping the chords from “Jurassic Park” at the start of one tune or attempting to explain to Manny the meaning of Netflix, the Daniels drop ephemeral references into the narrative the way Jackson Pollock flings paint on a canvas. This is pop art by way of lowbrow slapstick, with a premise that suggests “Cast Away” meets “Weekend at Bernie’s,” but really feels like a lunatic’s idea of a big, broad studio comedy — or maybe a mad scientist’s.
Not every outlandish ingredient of “Swiss Army Man” hits its mark. The Michel Gondry playbook of handmade objects grows a little thin, the hints of homoerotic tension between the characters seems underdeveloped, and the literal-minded closing scenes lack the same spectacular vision leading up to them. Nevertheless, the instinctive reactions of audiences to flee the flatulence that dominates the first few minutes of the movie (until Hank finds a cork, thank god) speak more to the hostile tendency to react against perceived bad taste rather than attempt to wrestle with its context.
Notably, some of the best movies at Sundance are the ones that tend to inspire walkouts. At a 2012 Eccles screening of Rick Alverson’s pointedly discomfiting “The Comedy” — in which a highly unpleasant, spoiled hipster served as the story’s object of scorn and its hero — crowds left in waves throughout. Those who remained gave it a standing ovation. One day after the initial “Swiss Army Man” reception, a midnight crowd held tight, laughing and applauding throughout several distinctive moments. As they embraced its outrageous alchemy, a cult movie was born.
To date, Sundance has been dominated by massive deals for crowdpleasers expected to make big waves in the months to come, with 2017 Oscar pontification already off and running. By comparison, “Swiss Army Man” may not ignite a heating bidding war. But it’s films that exist outside of that hype continuum, in which distributors seek product with the ability to reach the widest possible audience, where a different potential exists. The search for an indisputably great achievement implies that consensus matters above all else. But culture thrives on experimentation, disagreement, and people willing to break the rules. The movies that divide us only make us stronger. “Swiss Army Man” belongs in that category, no matter how many people manage to sit through it.
“Swiss Army Man” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.