Swiss Army Man: An Appreciation of Our Humanity

Deserted on an island and standing atop an unbalanced cooler, Hank is about to hang himself when he notices a well-dressed corpse wash ashore. Curious, he moves to investigate but stumbles off the cooler, flailing as the noose hangs him a foot above the ground before it breaks. When he approaches the corpse, looking for a sign or a bit of hope, the corpse farts. And it farts again and again and again. The flatulence is actually so excessive and so powerful that Hank is able to sit himself upon the corpse and ride him — jet ski style — to safety. Such is the way this humorous yet heartfelt film Swiss Army Man begins.

In what is already being described as the best movie of the year, Swiss Army Man follows a depressed Hank (Paul Dano) as he attempts to survive in the wilderness with a talking, but amnesic corpse named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe). In exchange for Manny’s abilities that establish him as a “multipurpose tool guy” — i.e. providing an excessive amount of spit for water or chopping wholesome logs with a swing of his arm — Hank teaches Manny what it means to be alive.

I admit, I was thrown off at first by the absurdity of the initial moments of the film. I knew from the trailers that this was going to be a weird movie, but I didn’t expect so much farting within the first five minutes of the opening credits. But the film embraces its weirdness almost immediately, as if to say, “Hey, I know this is strange, but I promise you, you will enjoy it.” And by the end when — spoiler — Manny farts himself off into the sunset, the film was right. I had enjoyed every moment of it immensely and its strangeness was one of the reasons why.

In a world where movie theaters are dominated by remakes and sequels, this film sets itself apart through the use of the unexpected. While, yes, the first fifteen minutes or so has a lot of farting, it  surprisingly becomes about so much more than that. It has many “what the heck?” moments, such as when Manny performs a flying summersault through fire to scare off a bear that is eating Hank’s leg, but it also has its really profound moments. We learn what it means to be in love. And we learn what it means to be human.

Early in the film, Hank tries to explain bodily functions to Manny by attempting to get him to remember the beloved children’s book Everyone Poops. But since Manny can’t remember any details of his past life, Hank replicates the book on the pages of a tossed out Bible using literal poop to illustrate various animals defecating. And while painting images of pooping animals over the words of God may come across as sacrilegious, it’s actually not. Because pooping is human, it’s godly, so to speak. It’s a function God gave us, so why should we be ashamed of it? In my opinion, this is what Swiss Army Man is all about. Obscene subjects that people don’t like to discuss —pooping, boners, masturbation — Hank has to explain to Manny who essentially has the mindset of a young child. Manny doesn’t receive this information with disgust or embarrassment, however, but with wonderment and joy. He embraces his humanity with adoration and says, “So this is the life I forgot.”

But as the time comes closer for both Hank and Manny to rejoin civilization, Hank explains to Manny that he can’t share his spit water or robust farts with his loved ones. Manny demands to know why not and Hanks says that’s just not how things work. People would think Manny gross or weird. And in turn Manny becomes critical and frustrated, his childlike innocence being replaced with adult exasperation.

This realization strikes hard at the end of the film when Manny asks Hank why he always goes away to fart, and Hank struggles to come up with a reason other than “I just like to do it alone.” Manny asks, “If my best friend hides his farts from me then what else is he hiding from me, and why does that make me feel so alone?” It’s a pivotal and emotional moment in the film. If everyone farts, then why are people ashamed to do it in front of each other? Particularly in front of the people we love?

While most movies that search for life’s meaning can come across as clichéd, Swiss Army Man tackles it in a completely refreshing way. If the meaning of life is embracing oneself, searching for happiness and finding pleasure in the simple things, then Swiss Army Man captures this, but in an absolutely bizarre fashion. For example, the film uses masturbation as a tool to discuss what simple things make us feel good. Manny says, “I don’t know exactly what masturbation is, or how it works, but I guess it probably feels a lot like the wind in your hair or driving really fast in a car. Taking a bite out of your favorite food or dancing with your friends or singing your favorite song or riding the bus or looking out windows. Now why would you ever say no to that?” In other words, why would you ever deny yourselves of these simple pleasures?

And though the weird premise and great script make this film enjoyable, it’s the fabulous acting done by Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe that push Swiss Army Man over the top. Dano makes Hank such a relatable and sympathetic character — one who struggles for his father’s acceptance and to find love and to not feel like such a loser as so many people do today. And Radcliffe brings, ironically, so much life to the Manny’s corpse. Radcliffe’s ability to express Manny’s naiveness and innate curiosity about how life works gives the corpse an awful lot of tenderness and heart.

This isn’t just a farting Daniel Radcliffe movie. It’s so much more than that and I highly recommend spending the $10 for a ticket.

A&EJoanne Paquin