Movie Review: Swiss Army Man.
Swiss Army Man is an odd, and oddly touching film about friendship and courage. And farts. Lots of farts.
Swiss Army Man, from first time film directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, is a supremely strange story about a castaway and his best and only friend, a corpse. Paul Dano (Looper) plays the castaway and Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter series) plays the corpse. For a movie about two people, one who is deceased, it has an ambitious goal of talking frankly and hilariously about society and self-censorship. It also attempts to break the world record for longest sustained fart joke in a major motion picture. It succeeds at both attempts.
Swiss Army Man (2016)
Hank (Paul Dano) is marooned on a small island, subsisting on the discarded trash of former residents. At wits end, he decides to hang himself to end his loneliness and boredom, but spots a body on the beach. He proceeds to accidentally hang himself trying to get to the man, but luckily manages to screw up his own suicide. Unfortunately, he discovers that the body is deceased, and possessed of limitless flatulence. Fortunately, it is also possessed of supernatural powers that render much of its bodily functions useful to Hank. He names the body Manny and escapes the island by using Manny’s farts. As he spends more time with Manny, he learns to harness his other magical cadaver powers to help him survive and thrive in the wilderness that separates him from society. He also learns that Manny may not be completely dead after all…
The movie sets up its premise early and without apology. We see a stream of garbage leaving the island, with messages written by Hank. Instead of the normal SOS, its a series of brain droppings, mostly about how bored he is. He finds Manny, but discovers that he is a corpse, and prepares to hang himself again, until he notices Manny farting so violently that he is being carried out to sea. Hank decides to save him by hooking his noose around the body, but is quickly dragged out to sea by the explosive farts. To his amazement, he is able to steer Manny like a jet ski, and has a solid 5 minutes of glorious triumph as he rides a farting corpse. That is the set up for this movie, and it is one of the greatest things I have ever seen.
The movie quickly establishes its ground rules. Hank tries to talk to the corpse and teach it respectability, but each time he does he discovers another bodily function that is taboo back in society, but a life saver out in the woods. Manny can fart like a jet engine, use his dead-wood erection like a compass, piston his arms through rigor mortis with enough force to chop wood, and regurgitate rain water like a fountain. Those are the immediate powers, but the list gets more exhaustive, gross, and hellaciously funny. We quickly get the point: these things shunned by society are not only natural, but necessary.
Two Bodies, er, Buddies
Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe are on another level in this movie. Dano is perfect as a conflicted introvert who tries his best to be socially acceptable, even in the middle of nowhere. He continually projects his hang-ups onto Manny. He deftly keeps the possibility of it all being his own mental breakdown just at arms length, leading to a fantastic tension for the audience. How much of this is mental disorder, how much is magic? You could probably watch the film a dozen times and get a different answer each time.
Daniel Radcliffe is showing himself to be an incredible talent. His avenues for expressing himself are necessarily small, and he conveys so much by physicality and simple dialogue (surprise, he can talk!) What he does with a facial tick or loll of the head sells almost all of the jokes. Watching him perform is like watching a concert pianist play effortlessly in a straight jacket. While farting.
So the premise is bonkers. Is Swiss Army Man just a fantastic gross-out fest? There’s no end to the list of movies that have made entertaining fodder out of flatulence. What Swiss Army Man does to elevate itself is to satirize the fart joke while telling some of the funniest fart jokes, and turn it all into a meta joke about society and self image.
Kwan and Scheinert know most people are uncomfortable with gas and erections and masturbation, and that we laugh at them as a mental release valve. They take that inner tension and make it the whole point of the film. If you walked out of this because it was gross, you would actually be simultaneously getting the message while missing the joke. Our standards bind us. The film is a metaphor for learning to love and accept ourselves, and to take that acceptance back into the real world. Love your farts, people, and it will set you free!
Let’s Have Fun
Swiss Army Man does have a serious message. Hank is torn to pieces inside by the judgements of his father, his peers, and his own internalized critic. As he tries to teach Manny how to be less gross, he finds himself running out of answers for why being gross is actually so bad. The film has many serious and touching moments where we realize how tenuous this thing called society is, and how fleeting its acceptance can be. The middle of the film has an extended sequence about Hank trying to show Manny why society is desirable. It may be flawed argument on his part, but not a flawed argument on the directors’ part. It’s got warts, but we still have to kiss that frog. Fortunately, the film never forgets to have fun with itself.
This movie made me smile unselfconsciously, repeatedly. It charms its way past your defenses, or outright steam-rolls them into silence. Part of this is the tremendous acting job done by the leads. Part of it is the willingness to examine every uncomfortable subject by the directors. But mostly it is because this movie revels in bodily existence. A story starring a guilt ridden introvert and a corpse loves the human body more than the Buddha did, and is not the least bit ashamed of it. It is a child squealing with glee every time it pulls your finger. There’s a fantastic layer of social commentary going on here, but there is also this nonstop commitment to finding joy at every turn. Swiss Army Man is the weirdest movie I have seen this year, and the most fun I have had in a theater in forever.