I’ve seen a number of off-kilter, unorthodox and even bizarre movies in my time. At first glance, Swiss Army Man may be the weirdest. We open the movie with Paul Dano stranded on an island about to hang himself, before he spots the dead body of Daniel Radcliffe at the edge of the water. And that’s when the farting begins. Yes, there’s no way around it, this is the farting corpse movie. The story follows Paul Dano using Daniel Radcliffe’s lifeless body as a sort of multi-tool to find his way back to civilization. He uses the corpse’s rigor mortis, gag reflex and seemingly endless supply of gas to do just about every task a survivalist would face. Hence the title, “Swiss Army Man”. The movie makes it very clear early on that this is not supposed to be realistic at all, but a metaphorical multi-tool to talk about society.
If you’ve already jumped ship on this one, I don’t blame you.
Paul Dano gives a fine performance as Hank, a hapless nerd with near-crippling anxiety issues. Daniel Radcliffe provides a counter-balance playing an optimistic and innocent corpse dubiously named Manny. It’s a truly impressive physical performance from Radcliffe, and could be enough to keep you watching through some of the film’s more wacky and indulgent sequences.
And boy is it wacky and indulgent. Directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Sheinert (aka DANIELS) do a fine job creating a engaging movie. It looks just like all of those other independent comedies about finding yourself. What I’m more interested in writing about is their intent. They have made a movie that’s either deeply personal or deeply cynical. Many people take this movie as a serious film critical of society’s repressive attitudes forcing people to hold back their true natures. On the surface, the movie is about being forced to hold in our thoughts, which are presented metaphorically as farts. I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence, but that is directly what the movie is about, and anyone who saw it would not be able to tell you differently. In this way, the movie is seen as an unorthodox movie about expressing yourself and being free–something we’ve seen countless times from the indie genre–but presented in an incredibly unique way.
But I have a different interpretation.
This movie is a ruse. A stealth parody. A hipster comedy. The film’s explicit message of self-acceptance and not hiding yourself is the opposite of the point that’s actually being made. Hank projects a dark part of himself onto Manny and the two have many conversations throughout the film about societal conventions and self-expression. While at first it seems genuine, the metaphors become stretched quickly to the point of ridiculousness.
I’m going to veer into minor spoilers here, so if you’re interested in seeing this movie, stop reading now and skip to the end of spoilers tag.. If you can’t believe it is a movie, keep reading.
Towards the end of the film, after building a house and a car of twigs and garbage, Hank dresses up as Sarah, the woman he stalked before becoming stranded and plays out scenarios with the corpse representing himself. All of this is played to the audience as a freeing and even inspiring experience, with a light indie rock soundtrack.
At the end of the film, hank finds himself in Sarah’s back yard (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Manny becomes self-conscious for the first time and stops talking to Hank (by re-entering society he “dies”). Hank leaves his phone with Manny so it appears Manny was the one stalking Sarah and Hank is a normal person. However, before he can complete his plan, Hank turns back, steals Manny’s corpse and carries him to the ocean. Sarah and Hank’s father see Hank’s bizarre creations in the woods and every strange unsightly aspect of Hank’s personality is laid bare. They react as you would expect. Hank drops Manny’s body in the ocean, and the corpse sails away propelled once again by the posthumous release of gas.
End of spoilers.
All of this tells me that the movie is not genuine. This is a parody of the “indie comedy” you’ve seen a hundred times about a guy learning to accept himself and live in the moment. This film takes the message of those films and takes it to the logical extreme. At the end of the film, Hank is treated as a psychopath. Because he is. The true message is that sometimes we have to hide parts of ourselves in order to live in society (especially if we’re as weird as Hank). While it’s tempting to blame society for being repressive, our inner thoughts are often just unpleasant farts. Nobody wants to hear it, nobody wants to smell it.
So was this movie good? I have no idea.