“I honestly don’t know how I’m going to continue my life after this.”
These were the words of a fellow moviegoer as we were leaving the afternoon showing of Swiss Army Man (possibly better known to you as “the Daniel-Radcliffe-plays-a-farting-corpse movie”) and since I think this is exactly the reaction the filmmakers want, I thought it made for a good opening gauntlet. Because if you choose to see this movie, it’s quite possible you’ll have a profoundly emotional experience. It’s equally possible you’ll just be grossed out, or even horrified.
Swiss Army Man is the feature film debut by the Daniels—Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert—prolific video and commercial directors, who wrote and directed the film as a team. Paul Dano’s Hank is stranded on a tiny desert island. Just as he’s preparing to kill himself, he spots Daniel Radcliffe washed up on the shore. He quickly learns that Radcliffe is a corpse, but more importantly, that the intense buildup of gas inside said corpse will allow him to use the other man as an impromptu jet ski. This is just the opening five-minute-ish salvo—the most perfect riff on Cast Away I ever expect to see. Like Tom Hanks’ character, Chuck Nolan, Hank realizes that his new life is a stark fight between existence and non-existence, and that nothing in nature wants you to live. Hank also begins confiding in the corpse, whose name might be Manny, quickly—we don’t know how long he’s been on that island, but he’s clearly been lonely for a long time. Manny, as it turns out, is much more useful than Wilson ever was. Things get more interesting as Hank finds himself on a quest back to civilization with the corpse. You see, Hank might have some hope of making it, because it appears that when Manny gets an erection, it acts as a compass pointing the way home.
I’m excited to see how responses to this film shake out along gender lines. The movie revels in its grossness in a way that stereotypical men will find hilarious, and stereotypical women will find icky. In light of that, let’s clear your reviewers’ biases right out of the way: I am a proud 12-year-old boy, mentally speaking. I thought Deadpool was the funniest shit in the world. Also, about halfway through the film I thought to myself, Great, another meditation-on-death-as-a-way-to-live-life movie, and began to worry that I’m pigeonholing myself by reviewing it, but those do tend to be my favorite movies…
The film takes the Wes Anderson/Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman/Michel Gondry style of twee, breathily high-pitched pop, conversations about life, death, and meaning, and intense (often male) friendship and melds it to pure scatology. This works perfectly, as far as I’m concerned, because just when things get a little too navel-gazy, the mood is punctured by an explosive fart or a perfectly timed erection. But even more interesting is its absolute commitment to body horror. Manny is, after all, a corpse, a walking, talking memento mori who attracts bugs and raccoons. His eyes have the glassy sheen and nauseating blankness of the dead. He clearly doesn’t smell great. So, each time Hank has to manipulate Manny’s body in any way, he’s essentially doing a job that most of us push off on coroners and morticians and do our very best never to think about. Which leads into the big capital-T Theme the Daniels want to wrestle with: Hank claims early on that he “doesn’t want to die alone”—but what difference does that make?
It is, above all else, a meditation on loneliness—Hank has been cut off from people for a long time, and it’s clear that the openness he shares with Manny is unusual for him. He uses Manny for his gas and his compass erections, but he’s also a good listener. As the film goes along and we’re able to see that there are darker layers to Hank than we first realized, Manny becomes even more of a foil. Tied to the loneliness is shame, which is where the Daniels are really relentless. Hank is ashamed of his body, ashamed of masturbation, ashamed of his own flatulence, ashamed of his own thoughts—he even hums to himself when he worries he’s “overthinking” things, as though thinking itself is a problem to be avoided. While he mouths platitudes, like telling Manny that masturbation is a natural thing, and that “everyone poops”—he also recoils in horror whenever he sees animal stool in the woods, attempts to stop the flow of Manny’s gas when it’s no longer useful to him, and stays covered up at all times—even when he rigs up an outdoor shower, he keeps his shorts on. Even though the only person there to see him is dead. It becomes clear that Hank has never been comfortable in his own body, which makes it all the more interesting that he’s now carrying a spare body around with him.
The film embraces its magical realism in a very interesting way. It is relentlessly materialistic in its worldview, as Hank spends all of his time with a gassy corpse, circles around and around his complicated feelings toward masturbation, and details the process of death with Manny several times as it looks like he might be at the end of his metaphorical rope. However, the film also plays with magical realism in the person of Manny. His reality, and whatever grip he still has on life, is tenuous. Is Manny real? Is Hank hallucinating?
To say this is an original idea does a disservice to the film. This idea is so bonkers that it shouldn’t even work as a five-minute Monty Python sketch, but Dano and Radcliffe commit to such an extent, and the Daniels are willing to poke at such painful wounds, that the film quickly begins to feel like a classic. Honestly, I don’t think it quite sustains this feeling to the very end (although the closing shot rivals City Lights for joy and ambiguity) but only because the complications of their reality get a little away from them in the last quarter. But I also happen to love complicated movies.
I keep thinking about Swiss Army Man in comparison with A24’s other recent film, The Lobster—they’re both about unlikely relationships and toxic gender roles. But where The Lobster ultimately read to me as a horror film rather than the comedy that’s being marketed, I think Swiss Army Man is just about as life affirming and, mostly, delightful as the ads have been telling me it will be.
Having said all that, when the Daniels choose to tackle a particular type of toxic masculinity, they commit as much to that as to everything else in their insane movie. And this is the other point that might create a gender divide for audiences: I feel like I watched a very different film than the guys in the room, and I think the film validated my viewing in the end.
Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe both give remarkable performances. Dano gradually shows us the different layers to Hank’s personality—some that make us want to give the poor man a hug, and others that make us want to push him further away. His performance above all made me ask—what makes a person loveable? And what can a person do to drive love away? And Radcliffe—even if his whole role in the film was just to play a corpse convincingly, that would be incredibly demanding. Instead he takes us through a whole emotional arc with Manny that, in the end, is one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen.
I’ve seen reviews of the film that accuse it of being too juvenile, or finding one joke and sticking with it, but I think that’s missing the point. The Daniels and their actors embrace the juvenile nature of their opening joke, and then expand the film into a serious look at the rules of human civilization. What makes certain behavior acceptable, and other behavior unacceptable? What happens to the objects (and the people) we consider garbage? Why are we so quick to throw things away for the new and the shiny? At what point does a human being become just another piece of waste to be pushed away and hidden from polite society? If you’re willing to explore these questions through the medium of a two-hour long fart joke, then I doubt you’re going to find a more original movie this summer than Swiss Army Man.